The idea of establishing a reference for the measurement of units of magnitude has a long history. As early as the ancient Egyptians, for example, the “cubit” was identified as a unit of measurement (corresponding to the length of a pharaoh’s forearm) to bring order to the design and construction of temples and pyramids. Similarly, much more recently, it has become necessary to have shared standards for product characteristics or the execution of specific processes.
Accordingly, standardization rules and regulations have developed on an individual country level since 1926. That same year the ISA (International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations) was founded, a federation of national bodies, mainly active in the mechanical and engineering fields, which was dissolved at the dawn of the World War II. The term ISO appeared in 1947 with the founding of the International Organization for Standardization and, curiously, ISO isn’t an acronym. It actually originates from the Greek word for “equal”, to indicate its mission of eliminating differences i.e. convergence. The Geneva-based non-governmental organisation is a federation of national standardization bodies with 164 member states*.
Since its inception, ISO has produced a multitude of standards coded by number and year of edition. For example, the ISO 14000 series standards relate to environmental management systems followed by the year of issue (or latest revision) – as in the case of ISO 14001:2015 – Environmental Management Systems. If the suffix EN is present in the acronym, it means that the standard is also implemented by the European standardization body, while the suffix UNI indicates that it is also implemented by the Italian body.
Since the 1980s, ISO standards have begun to cover management activities in addition to production processes, with the aim of improving the broader “how to go about it”, not just the “what to do” steps.
A company, institution or non-profit organization which intends to be compliant with a standard in a given field of application, and wants this compliance to be recognized, must carry out a review of its product or process according to the reference ISO standard and undergo validation by a Certification Authority. Only at the end of this process will the organization be able to communicate its adherence to an ISO standard.
*Data updated to 2019.