The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a private (nongovernmental) worldwide federation, which was founded to promote the creation and implementation of uniform standards facilitating international exchange of goods and services. The ISO's members are elected representatives from national standards organizations in more than 120 countries. The U.S. representative is the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), a private standards organization. U.S. trade associations, professional societies, and government agencies are also involved in the work of the ISO through their membership and participation in technical advisory groups (TAGs), which work with the ISO's technical committees to draft international standards.

Since the ISO was created in 1947, its Central Secretariat has been located in Geneva, Switzerland. Between 1951 (when it published its first standard) and 1998, the ISO issued over 10,060 standards. Standards are documents containing technical specifications, rules, guidelines, and definitions to ensure that equipment, products, and services conform to their specifications. The ISO covers all fields involving goods, services, or products with the exception of electrical and electronic engineering. The ISO is one of three major international standards bodies. The other two are the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

The IEC was created in 1906 and it also has its central offices in Geneva. The IEC's members include technical committees from 42 participating countries and represent the interests of their respective countries with regard to electrotechnical matters. The IEC and the ISO coordinate their work through a Joint Technical Programming Committee. The IEC handles all matters regarding worldwide electronic engineering and electrical standards.

The third major international standardization body, the ITU, is also headquartered in Geneva and it frequently works with the ISO. The ITU's work covers communications including the Internet, radio, cable television, and related industries.


Only one standards organization per country may be an ISO member, and more than 70 percent of ISO members are representatives of government institutions. But the U.S. representative, ANSI, is a private standards organization. ANSI is actively involved in the ISO, holding participant or observer status on 95 percent of ISO's technical committees (TCs) and subcommittees.

There are three types of membership in the ISO: full members, correspondent members, and subscriber members. There are currently over 85 full members. They have full rights of voting and participation. There are currently at least 24 correspondent members. Correspondent members are usually developing countries that do not have a national standards body. They are entitled to attend General Assembly meetings but do not have voting rights. Subscriber membership is for very small countries that want to be kept informed of ISO activities. There are currently at least nine subscriber members.


The ISO operates through various governing bodies and policy-making committees. A small Central Secretariat coordinates and oversees the work of the various ISO bodies, and it publishes ISO standards.

The General Assembly (GA) is the highest authority within the ISO. Each ISO member nominates a delegate to the GA. The GA acts on policy, budget, the business agenda, and other important matters. It also oversees all ISO policy committees. There are four major policy committees, each of which is open to all ISO members as participants or observers. They include the following: the Committee on Conformity Assessment, the Committee on Consumer Policy, the Committee on Developing Country Matters, and the Committee on Information Systems and Services.

The ISO Council is made up of 13 elected and 5 appointed members. The council sets the Central Secretariat's annual budget. It also appoints 12 members and a treasurer to the Technical Management Board. The board, in turn, oversees operations of the ISO technical committees.

The ISO operates two information networks. The first is the ISO Information Network (ISONET). ISONET has 72 members, and those members are responsible for disseminating information about ISO standards, technical regulations, and matters related to the standards and regulations. The second is ISO Online. ISO Online is an Internet service available to the general public on the World Wide Web in English and French. It provides information about various activities of the ISO including, but not limited to, facts about the ISO, a catalog of all ISO standards and drafts, a list of all ISO members and committees, and copies of all press releases.



The Technical Management Board oversees all technical management committees (TCs). There are 185 TCs, 636 subcommittees (SCs), 1,975 working groups (WGs), and 36 ad hoc committees that develop the international standards that are, in turn, distributed by ISO members throughout the world.

The ISO's standards are drafted by the TCs, each of which is charged with the development of standards in a specified area. As it drafts standards, each TC solicits the input of producers, customers, governmental bodies, and scientists. TCs establish SCs and WGs to assist with the development of standards.

The Technical Management Board coordinates work among various TCs. It also establishes technical advisory groups (TAGs). The TAGs advise the board and committees in planning, coordination, and the development of new standards.


Development of a new standard can be viewed as a five-step process. First, there is a proposal, called a new work item proposal, before a TC or SC. If the proposal is accepted by the TC or SC, the second step is the preparation stage during which groups of experts prepare a working draft (WD). When the WD is forwarded to the TC or SC, the third step, the committee draft (CD) stage, begins. At this stage, various additional drafts are prepared until a consensus is reached among the participating members within the TC or SC. The fourth step is the draft international standard (DIS) stage. At this point, the CD becomes a DIS, which is circulated to all ISO members for voting and comment within six months. It is adopted as a standard if two-thirds of participating members approve and no more than 25 percent of those voting oppose it. The fifth and final step is publication by the ISO Central Secretariat.


Until about 1979, the ISO had focused on product technical standards. The ISO standards cover a wide variety of subjects. For example, standards cover road vehicles, petroleum products and lubricants, agricultural food products, codes for film used in cameras, measurements, pumps, acoustics, and many other areas.

In 1979 the ISO developed the first of two major sets of standards that cover far more than product technical standards. First was, and is, the 9000 series, which was developed by the Technical Committee on Quality Assurance and Quality Management (TC 176). The ISO 9000 series was developed between 1979 and 1986 and was published in 1987. Its purpose is to describe the basic requirements of a quality management system and to provide guidance in implementing such a system. The series has been adopted widely by U.S. companies as well as companies around the world. The second is the ISO 14000 International Environmental Management Series. It covers nearly every aspect of a company's environmental management activities. Its goal is to help any company deal with environmental issues in a systematic way and, through that systematic approach, to help the company improve its environmental performance.


The ISO is an international organization that has had and will continue to have significant effects on business in many areas including, but not limited to, quality management and environmental performance. Although it is a private organization, it has had significant effects on the behavior of businesses around the world and it has received significant input and attention from governments around the world. In the process of globalization of business, the ISO is playing a significant role in working to harmonize business practices.

[ Paulette L. Stenzel ]


International Organization for Standardization. "ISO Online." Geneva: International Organization for Standardization. Available from .

Tibor, Tom, and Ira Feldman. ISO 14000: A Guide to the New Environmental Management Standards. Irwin Professional Pub., 1996.

Von Zharen, W. M. ISO 14000: Understanding the Environmental Standards. 1996.

Voorhees, John, and Robert E. Woellner. International Environmental Risk Management. CRC Press, 1998.

Zuckerman, Amy. International Standards Desk Reference. New York: Amacom, 1997.

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