What, or rather who, is ISO?

Let’s shed light on this somewhat closed-door organization, giving it a reputation akin to that of the Knights Templar or the Freemasons.

From its website, ISO is an independent, non-governmental international organization with a membership of 169 national standards bodies. ISO was officially formed over 75 years ago in London at the Institute of Civil Engineers during a conference of national standardizing organizations spanning two weeks from October 14 to October 26, 1946. Its headquarters, or the location of the “Central Secretariat,” would not move to Geneva until 1949.

When ISO was first formed, it happened immediately following the conclusion of the Second World War—an era where the winners of the world war were restructuring international participation and heavily influencing who would have a seat at the table. In fact, ISO originally blocked the membership of any delegates represented by neutral or Axis countries.

The formation of ISO was the unity of two preexisting bodies – The International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA) established in 1926 out of New York, and the United Nations Standards Coordinating Committee (UNSSC), which formalized two years earlier in 1944 with operations out of London.

25 countries were represented by 65 delegates at the London meetings that formed ISO in 1946.

From the memoir "Friendship Among Equals," the last surviving delegate of these London meetings was Willy Kuert. In a 1997 interview, he recalled, “The atmosphere at first was a bit uncertain! We were sizing each other up. We feared that the UNSCC didn’t want an organization like the ISA had been, but an organization which was dominated by the winners of the war. We wanted to have an organization open to every country that would like to collaborate, with equal duties and equal rights. The inch system and the metric system were also constantly at the back of our minds. There was an inch bloc and a metric bloc. We didn’t talk about it. We would have to live with it. But we hoped that ISO might provide a place where we could get consensus in this area.”

Modern Day ISO

Today, while there are fewer than 200 full-time, directly employed staff at ISO, there are thousands of volunteers and experts comprising the 169 bodies or “members,” further broken down into three tiers: member bodies, correspondent members, and subscriber members. Member bodies maintain voting rights, while correspondent members have more limited privileges, such as observing standards development meetings only, and subscribers are notified on an informed basis post-meeting.

From a standards development perspective, there are 800+ technical committees and subcommittees in operation across a range of subject matters, including information technology, health, transportation, sustainability, energy, diversity and inclusion, food, engineering, and government. China, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Japan, and Korea lead among all active member bodies as the most participatory within these technical committees.

It is important to note which countries are influencing standards today at the highest levels, as these are the same delegates that are calibrating and determining global requirements and rules for critical processes, such as artificial intelligence management, data privacy, and cybersecurity.

For example, the joint technical committee (JTC) 1 is chaired by ANSI, the United States member body, via Phil Wennblom, an executive with Intel. JTC 1 is responsible for authoring the current revision of ISO 27001 for information security management systems.

We will dive deeper into JTC 1 and its subcommittees (SC), especially SC 27, in future discussions due to this group’s heavy focus on development of the ISO 27000 series.

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