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July 30, 2004
ISO and Social Responsibility--A Closer Fit Than You Might Think: An Interview with ISO Secretary-General
    by William Baue

International Organization for Standardization Secretary-General Alan Bryden discusses divergences and convergences of ISO technical standards with social responsibility guidelines (part two of a three-part article).

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is considered the gold standard in standard-setting for everything from the dimensions of screw threads to the width of wheel chairs. For more than a half-century, ISO's expertise has focused predominantly on technical specifications, but more recently it extended its reach to cover management systems, including those dealing with the environment. ISO's announcement late last month of its intention to extend even further by establishing guidelines for social responsibility (SR) represents a foray into a realm governed less by objective measurements and more by subjective judgments.

ISO Secretary-General Alan Bryden recently spoke with about how well ISO's standard-setting expertise fits with the task of establishing benchmarks for social responsibility. An advisory group to the ISO noted that social responsibility is "qualitatively different from the subjects and issues that have traditionally been dealt with by ISO". How does SR differ, and how is it similar to the issues and subjects ISO traditionally deals with?

Alan Bryden: Firstly, let's look at what is different. Many ISO standards are highly specific. They are documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics to ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose. Standards on screw threads certainly appear a long way from a standard for social responsibility that gives guidelines for organizational behavior!

One of the conclusions of the advisory group was that there would be a fundamental difference between dealing with social issues and dealing with technical issues, as ISO has predominantly done. Society deals with the social behavior of business not through social performance requirements, but through regulation, corporate governance, freedom of speech, the competitive market-place, and collective bargaining--areas for which ISO is not experienced in developing standards.

However, an evolution in ISO's portfolio has been going on for some years already. In addition to very specific engineering standards, we also develop horizontal business standards that offer benefits to many different sectors, such as our standards for management systems, risk management terminology, and complaints handling for organizations.

In fact, if we shift the perspective from looking at what is different to looking at what is similar, then we begin to perceive that ISO has never been an organization developing purely technical standards. Even if the content is usually technical, the impetus for the development of a standard and the outcome sought through its implementation mean that ISO standards also have a social dimension and that, in fact, ISO has more experience in dealing with values than might first be apparent if you concentrate solely on looking for what is different.

The ISO standardization system takes values like efficiency, effectiveness, economy, quality, ecology, safety, reliability, compatibility, and interoperability, and transforms them into specific, concrete, and practical characteristics of products and services for implementation in their manufacture, supply, or utilization. The resulting International Standards may be technical in content, but the stimulus for their development is to make it possible to implement a value and the outcome of their use may be related to health, safety, the environment, and economic development. Therefore, ISO has a long experience of providing workable solutions to value-based challenges faced by business, government, and society.

Our standards-developing processes are such that if we can convene the expert resources needed for the job, we can take on any new challenge--including the challenge to improve our own processes.

The ISO 9000 and ISO 14000 standards provide striking examples ISO's ability to face new challenges very successfully. For many years, ISO technical specification standards were used for end-of-the-production-line quality control. Then ISO allowed quality to be built in from development onwards by developing its ISO 9000 quality management standards. In the environmental field, ISO has developed hundreds of standards for specific uses such as testing water, soil, and air quality. With the ISO 14000 series, ISO has added the holistic tool of environmental management to help organizations meet their challenges in this area.

These examples show that the ISO system can successfully engage the experts and organizations necessary to develop the standard required. As far as SR is concerned, we are developing and weighing up options. One way would be for the working group (WG) on SR to be composed of experts nominated by the national standards institutes that make up ISO's membership. Each ISO member body that wishes to take a part would also be encouraged to establish a "mirror committee" with a well-balanced membership including business, labor, and the other stakeholders to advise the experts nominated to the WG on national issues.

An invitation to this work will be also be extended to international or broadly-based regional organizations, such as ILO [International Labour Organization], the Global Compact, GRI [Global Reporting Initiative], the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], and Consumers International.

In part one of this three-part article, Mr. Bryden discusses the history and implications of ISO's new social responsibility standards; in part three, he addresses stakeholder engagement, benchmarking, auditing, and transparency in the SR standards.


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