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21 Jul 2022

ISO management systems assurance

In the context of the ISO management systems standards, the internal audit process and accredited certification systems as a whole, are assurance controls primarily intended to confirm that organisations' management systems conform to the explicit requirements formally expressed in the respective ISO standards.

A conformant management system, in turn, is expected to manage (design, direct, control, monitor, maintain …) something: for ISO/IEC 27001, that 'something-being-managed' is the suite of information security controls and other means of addressing the organisation’s information risks (called 'information security risks' or 'cybersecurity risks' in the standards). For ISO 9001, it is the quality assurance activities designed to ensure that the organisation's products (goods and services) are fit for purpose. For ISO 14001, it is the controls and activities necessary to minimise environmental damage.

My point is that the somethings-being-managed are conceptually distinct from the  'management systems' through which managers exert their direction and control. This is a fundamental part of the ISO management systems approach, allowing ISO to specify systems required to manage a wide variety of somethings in a similar way - a governance approach in fact.

Management system certification auditors, whose sole purpose is to audit clients' management systems' conformity with the requirements expressed in the standards, have only a passing interest in those somethings-being-managed, essentially checking that they are indeed being actively managed through the management system, thereby proving that the management system is in fact operational and not just a nice neat set of policies and procedures on paper.

Management system internal auditors, in contrast, may be given a wider brief by management which may include probing further into the somethings being managed ... but that’s down to management’s decision about the scope and purpose of the internal audits, not a formal requirement of the standards. Management may just as easily decide to have the internal auditors stick to the management system standard conformity aspects, just the same as the certification auditors.

Likewise with management reviews of the management systems: the ISO standards stop well short of specifying all the things management might conceivably want to be reviewed. Reviewing conformity with the respective ISO management systems standards is just one of several possible review objectives, alongside all the things hopefully being measured through the management system metrics.

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