ISO certification means that a third party has independently validated that an organization conforms to a set of standards established by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
To date, the ISO has developed over 22,000 international standards covering multiple industries and topics. One group of these standards, the ISO 9000 family of quality management standards, aims to help organizations deliver better products and services that are safer, more secure and more resilient, as well as environmentally friendly.
These standards include ISO 9001 (quality management), ISO 27001 (information security), ISO 14001 (environmental management), and ISO 22301 (business continuity).
Although voluntary, a company that wants to become ISO certified has to submit to a series of audits performed by an independent organization called a certification body. During the certification process, these third-party assessors will audit the organization to determine if its processes, as well as its products and services, meet the ISO criteria.
Most organizations begin with the ISO 9001:2015 (the latest version) certification as ISO 9001 is the basis for most of the other ISO standards. ISO 9001 defines the requirements for creating a quality management system (QMS). The QMS focuses on meeting customer requirements and overall customer satisfaction.
A company that meets the ISO requirements for a particular standard is awarded the certification for three years. Organizations must be recertified every three years and they must continually improve to qualify for the recertification process.
Being ISO compliant means adhering to the requirements of a specific standard but without the need for the outside certification body to perform the series of audits. For example, ISO 9001 compliance means a company has consistent processes that meet the standard of a QMS. Although companies might not fully document these processes — and as such not eligible for certification—they guarantee a consistent level of service to ensure customer satisfaction.
Unlike the ISO 9001 certification, which requires a certification body to perform the series of audits, ISO compliance focuses on decision-making that establishes policies, procedures, and processes that align with the specifications.
Compliance, then, is a type of self-assessment. Although a company will still implement a complete QMS, it won’t hire a third-party certification body to conduct the certification audit.
Any company can opt to implement a quality management system standard and use the standard to improve operations and manage risk. In addition, an organization can choose to meet the requirements and perform its own internal audits as part of its overall quality management system. Consequently, any company that implements the standard can claim to be compliant.
To sum up: ISO certification offers independent validation that a company conforms to a set of standards created by the ISO. Compliance, on the other hand, means complying with the requirements of ISO standards without the formalized certification and recertification process.