What Is ISO Compliance? And Is It Important?

What Is ISO Compliance? And Is It Important?

New technologies, industries, and products can increase our quality of life, longevity, and joy — they also come with unknown risks. When a product or service is new or hasn’t been regulated, yet, there’s always the possibility that the risks outweigh the value. No company wants to be faced with a product recall or lawsuit, and every company knows the benefits of keeping its employees safe and secure. Standards help you avoid losses and give you a set of clear guidelines and anchors to determine whether your organization is on the right track fiscally, ethically, and legally.

In this article, we’ll offer some background on the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and its most popular standards, including two of the most popular frameworks for management systems: ISO 27001 for Information Security Management Systems and ISO 9001 for Quality Management Systems (QMS). We’ll also provide a breakdown of what ISO compliance means and why a company might pursue it. 

What Is ISO Compliance?

ISO is an international non-governmental organization based in Geneva, Switzerland that was initially convened in 1954 and is now one of the dominant standard-setting entities in the world. In partnership with governments, policy-makers, and academics, ISO has set over 22,600 standards, regulating products from child car seats to film speed, and presenting comprehensive frameworks for best practices in business management and manufacturing processes. ISO is best known for a few of their standards, including ISO 9001 on standards for Quality Management Systems (QMS), ISO/IEC 27001 for Information Security Management Systems (ISMS), and ISO 45001 for Occupational Health and Safety. 

ISO offers certification via third-party audit for a number of its standards, including ISO 27001 and ISO 9001. These certifications can help solidify your organization’s reputation as a business your clients can trust, offering validation and verification that you are following international best practices. Certification can be a boon when it comes to communicating to your clients, stakeholders, and employees that protecting them is a priority to you. For instance, companies like Dropbox and Salesforce publish their ISO 27001 certification to demonstrate that they care about protecting their stakeholders’ and partners’ private information. 

Achieving an ISO certification can be valuable, but also time-consuming and can be costly. ISO 27001 certification, for example, may initially take about three to six months of pre-work, followed by a two-stage audit by a registrar after the first year and renewal every three years. Before investing in certification, many organizations opt to focus on ISO compliance. ISO compliance is the practice of following a specific ISO standard as a guide for your organization’s structure, practices, and policies. Achieving compliance can be a first step towards certification if that is your ultimate goal or if your partners and stakeholders require it of you, but it can also be a viable end goal.

Why Is ISO Compliance Important? 

ISO standards are considered the global best practices by many industry leaders and consumers; being ISO certified signals to your clients and customers that you are a company to be trusted and have invested the time and energy to make sure your ship is running as smoothly, effectively, and ethically as it can. ISO compliance is the process of making sure your organization adheres to the ISO standards relevant to your enterprise, even if you aren’t yet ready to invest time and resources into the certification process. However, the process of becoming ISO compliant can also get you on track to becoming ISO certified down the road. Moreover, not all ISO standards are certifiable, so compliance may be your primary end goal. Compliance signals to your partners and customers that you are serious about the quality of your processes, products, and services, that you value their privacy and safety, and that you are protecting the bottom line. 

Why Is Being ISO Compliant Important for Organizations? 

Being ISO compliant is valuable for organizations who are operationally mature and seeking to enhance their reputation as they scale production or think about approaching new markets. ISO 9001 and ISO 27001 specifically are important for organizations that are at a stage where they are ready to systematize their information security and quality management processes. What can ISO compliance do for your organization? Here are a few benefits: 

1. Streamlines Operations

If your organization is new or is just starting to think about information security or quality management, ISO provides strong frameworks to follow to make sure you’re covering your bases. Rather than determining how to stand up a program from scratch, your organization can save time and resources by using ISO standards and frameworks as adaptable structures for your efforts.

2. Enhances Reputation 

Even without certification, you can show ISO compliance and communicate the steps you’ve taken to become and remain compliant with your clients. While the seal of approval of certification can be a major boon, ISO compliance is still a powerful marketing tool for your company, especially if you’re on the road to future certification. 

3. Signals Trustworthiness

If your company is following ISO guidelines, it indicates to your clients that your business is trustworthy and that you care about the quality of your products and processes. If you can demonstrate ISO 27001 compliance, for example, you’ll signal to your customers that you care about cybersecurity and protecting their data. 

4. Reduces Losses 

Whether preventing flawed products from hitting the market or ensuring that manufacturing processes are safe, ISO compliance can prevent or reduce losses to your company. ISO 27001 compliance, for example, not only signals that you’re trustworthy; it also helps to protect you from the threat of a data breach that could cause financial and reputational damage. ISO 27001 outlines steps to take to prevent a data breach and how to respond in the event that one occurs. Your organization will know that implementing necessary protections to mitigate risk that could result in financial loss and damage to your relationships with your partners. 

5. Increases Revenue 

Ultimately, all of the above are good for your bottom line — investing in ISO compliance, and potentially certification by a third-party auditor, may cost up front, but it has significant ROI in the longer term. Following ISO standards help you save in multiple ways, from shaving costs on energy by developing efficient energy management systems or preventing losses through implementing quality control frameworks. 

How Can I Be ISO Compliant? 

ISO compliance should be almost as rigorous as certification — but driven by self-audit, instead of third-party audit, and thus saving time and money. 

ISO 9001, for example, is structured around a four-stage process: plan, do, check, act, often abbreviated to PDCA. The standard employs this process to develop, implement, and audit quality management systems, outlining each component that needs to be present in a QMS, from management teams like human resources to production equipment and computing. If you are seeking to demonstrate ISO 27001 compliance, you’ll need to follow the ISO guidelines to develop your Information Security Management System, including things like IT leadership, password protection and encryption, and training programs to help staff maintain rigorous protocol around data, then set up a system to track its success. 

Modern compliance management software can help you keep track of the various components of an ISO standard, especially if you’re looking to achieve compliance across a family of standards or multiple standards or frameworks that are interconnected. It can also help you keep track of any updates, since ISO reviews each standard every five years to see if any changes need to be made. 

What Are the Different Types of ISO Standards?

With input from industry, academia, and government, ISO has published over 22,600 standards across a wide range of fields, some related to processes and others to products. You might find that more than a few ISO standards pertain to your organization — while you may want to pursue the certification process in one area, you can also become ISO compliant in other areas as a boon to your business. Here are some of the most popular categories of ISO standards: 

1. Information Security and IT

The ISO 27000 family — and ISO 27001 specifically — is a popular standard that helps to ensure an organization is doing their utmost to protect the security of their information. The standard outlines in detail the best practices for developing Information Security Management Systems, and, like 9001 can be certified by third-party audit. Many organizations that are operationally mature choose to certify, because it signals to external stakeholders that the company is doing its utmost to protect and secure their information, and understands how to prevent cybersecurity breaches

2. Quality Management 

ISO 9001 for Quality Management Systems (QMS) is the gold standard for organizations seeking to streamline the controls, standard operating procedures (SOPs), and policies they have around quality assurance. The ISO 9001 standard is certifiable by a third-party auditor and registrar, and covers the design and implementation of a QMS, including whether quality assurance documentation matches quality management practices. Other standards in the 9000 family cover quality control frameworks for more specific industries from road safety to solar panels. 

3. Health and Safety 

From ISO 22000 for Food Safety to ISO 45001 for Occupational Health and Safety, health and safety standards are some of the most popular and best known ISO offerings. These process-based standards help prevent occupational hazards, employee injury, and the spread of disease in the workplace. They also ensure the safety of products we use every day; an ISO compliant restaurant chain can help ensure their prepared foods are safe to consume and an automotive company can ensure their vehicles are safe for the road.

4. Environmental Management

The ISO 14000 family of standards sets the framework for how organizations can best work with (and protect) the environment. ISO 14001, for example, outlines how to consider environmental systems, like weather patterns and diverse ecosystems, in developing, sourcing, and manufacturing products and services. The 14000 family also targets environmental audits, communications, and big-picture issues like climate change. 

5. Tourism and Events 

Tourism and large-scale events can create a strain on a region’s resources, labor, and ecology. ISO standards for event management helps to ensure that events are run safely, ethically, efficiently, and sustainably. Following ISO 2012, for example, can help those planning large-scale events to rest assured they are considering everything from capacity to zoning requirements to environmental and labor issues. ISO 20121 was released in preparation for the 2012 Olympics in London and ISO is continuing to work on even more specific guidelines for citywide events with ISO 22379. This fresh standard is still under development and is designed with events like the Winter 2022 Beijing Olympics in mind. 

6. Energy and Natural Resource Management

As the world adapts to environmental changes, companies are increasingly seeking to increase sustainability. ISO offers standards for sustainable resource management and energy use, including ISO 50001, which offers guidelines for organizations to develop efficient energy management systems (EnMS). Organizations across all sectors can benefit from improved energy use — ISO emphasizes that optimizing energy use is good for the bottom line and also allows organizations to communicate to their stakeholders that they are adopting more sustainable practices. 

7. Social Responsibility 

ISO 26000 was originally published in 2010 and expands the work ISO started in introducing ISO 14000. This standard offers guidance on how companies can become socially responsible, which extends to sustainability, human rights, labor practices, and economic development. ISO 26000 is ambitiously comprehensive, created in partnership with the International Labour Organization, the Global Compact, the OECD, and a variety of NGOs and community development specialists. It provides guidance alone and cannot be certified, but ISO considers it a product of international consensus

8. Medical Technology and Practice

ISO has released a number of standards that are very specific to healthcare settings and operations, including ISO 60601, a standard for using electrical equipment in medical settings. For example, as the world continues to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, ISO regulations for equipment like lung ventilators have become increasingly important. With input from medical professionals, academics, and NGOs, ISO has worked with the International Electrotechnical Committee (IEC) to release standards as specific and detailed as ISO/IEC 80369, which outlines how to use small-bore connectors for liquids and gases in healthcare applications. 

9. Industry and Production

ISO is known for a whole range of standards related to product design, manufacturing, and distribution. ISO 13485, for example, covers regulations and quality for medical devices, including how they are serviced and updated. There are also a number of standards related to road vehicle design and measurements, including fuel consumption in hybrid and electric vehicles, and standardization of the symbols you commonly see on your dashboard. ISO has also created a number of highly specific standards covering everything from mechanical pencils to medical devices like orthopaedic drills

How to Stay ISO Compliant Moving Forward

A strong compliance strategy will strengthen your stakeholders’ trust in your ISO practices and can increase your marketing success. ISO standards are complex and it can take many years to become compliant — staying compliant takes more than just minor maintenance, but it doesn’t need to be daunting. Modern compliance management software helps organizations keep on top of the multiple compliance frameworks and standards to support moving towards certification. AuditBoard’s compliance management software can help you plan, track, and review your ISO compliance strategy — learn how to get started today!

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