ISO 9001 and ISO 14001: Towards a Research Agenda on Management System Standards


  • Iñaki Heras-Saizarbitoria,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Management, E.U.E. Empresariales, University of the Basque Country UPV-EHU, Plaza Oñati 1, 20018, San Sebastian, Spain
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  • Olivier Boiral

    1. Département de management, Faculté des sciences de l'administration, Université Laval, Pavillon Palasis-Prince, 2325, rue de la Terrasse, Local 1638, Québec, Québec G1V 0A6, Canada
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  • This article is a result of a Research Project funded by the Basque Autonomous Government (GIC 10/89) and the Spanish Ministry for Education and Science (ECO2009-12754). The authors wish to express their sincere thanks to the Co-Editor-in-Chief of IJMR Oswald Jones and to the three reviewers for their assistance; their constructive criticism and suggestions helped us to improve and develop the paper substantively.



Management system standards, also called meta-standards, have been adopted by an increasing number of organizations across the world. Although these management system standards are based on the same type of management principles and institutional arrangements, the literature remains scattered, with diverse studies focused on specific standards and published in various journals. The main objective of this paper is to analyse the academic research on meta-standards through an integrative review intended to shed light on the main conclusions and substantial advances made in this area. This integrative review focuses more specifically on the two main meta-standards which have been adopted by more than 1.3 million organizations worldwide: ISO 14001 and ISO 9001. The paper contributes insights into the main streams of the literature and current knowledge gaps to be addressed in future research on the various issues related to meta-standards: global governance, diffusion processes, motivations, benefits of adoption and impacts on performance, internalization, integration, consultancy and auditing.


The development of management standards now encompasses a very wide range of aspects of business activity, such as quality management (e.g. ISO 9001), environmental management (e.g. ISO 14001), the prevention of occupational hazards and the provision of health and safety regulations in the workplace (e.g. OHSAS 18000), and corporate social responsibility (e.g. SA 8000). These standards tend to use quite similar methodology with regard to their creation, structure, implementation process and monitoring by a third party, a trend that was established by the successful ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 standards. Indeed, it should be taken into account that, by late 2010, over 1,100,000 ISO 9001 certificates and 250,000 ISO 14001 certificates had been authorized in a total of 178 countries all over the world (ISO 2011; see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Worldwide ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 certification. Source: ISO Survey (ISO 2011)

Similarly, standards-based management is a research field that has received a lot of attention in recent years, owing to the great success enjoyed by management standards all over the world. In our opinion, therefore, it is important to review the different approaches to the study of standardization in a management context, so as to attempt to synthesize and thus improve academic knowledge, which is in the interests of the various different stakeholders involved (i.e. managers, consultants, policy-makers and researchers).

This work represents an attempt to analyse in depth the class of standards known as management system standards (MSS), also referred to as meta-standards (Uzumeri 1997), and which have been so successful in recent years. In this paper, a review of the substantial advances made in the field of this subject of study is carried out; the review comes within the category of integrative reviews, works ‘that seek to merge findings from related areas’ (Macpherson and Jones 2010, p. 109). Moreover, a research agenda for the field is proposed. The paper focuses on the two main global management standards at the international level: ISO 14001 and ISO 9001.

A systematic literature review was carried out in order to identify the most prominent theoretical and empirical academic works on the topic. In short, the ABI/Inform, Emerald and Science Direct databases were used to perform literature searches with the following keywords: (1) ISO 9000, ISO 9001, ISO 14001, ISO 14000; (2) ISO standards; (3) meta-standard; and (4) management system standard/s.

The main contribution of this paper is to provide an integrative review of the multifaceted literature on meta-standards, to analyse the main conclusions of studies carried out from different perspectives and to propose various avenues for future research based on the knowledge gaps identified. The remainder of the paper is organized as follows. Following this introduction, the paper presents a short overview of standardization and MSS or meta-standards. In the third section, ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 are briefly analysed, followed by a fourth section in which an attempt is made to synthesize the main theoretical perspectives or approaches applied to the analysis of those meta-standards in academic studies. The fifth section constitutes an outline map of the main areas of research undertaken to date and the areas in which, in the authors' opinion, research should be undertaken in the future. The paper ends with a summary of the main conclusions.

Standardization and meta-standards

Standardization constitutes a mechanism of coordination and an instrument of regulation comparable with other instruments, such as public regulations, markets and hierarchies or formal organizations (Antonelli 1998; Brunsson and Jacobsson 2000). In a global economy, without standardization and its results – technical standards or specifications – interchanges would become exceedingly difficult. Standardization can, then, stimulate international trade by eliminating obstacles arising from different national practices. Thus, standards are important for the promotion of economic efficiency, as they provide a basis for reducing information-related transaction costs (Nadvi and Wältring 2004).

Focusing on the specific case of management standards, in their monograph on standardization Brunsson and Jacobsson (2000) refer repeatedly to ‘standards for administrative processes’, and Furusten (2000, p. 71), in the same monograph, defines management standards as ‘standards on how to design and manage organizations’. We can explicitly identify these administrative standards with what we would define here as MSS, a term that already has a certain tradition of academic acceptance behind it in studies relating to quality management and environmental management (e.g. Corbett and Kirsch 2001; Delmas 2002; Karapetrovic 2002; Neumayer and Perkins 2004; Wilkinson and Dale 2001).

In the literature on the subject, MSS are often called meta-standards (e.g. Boiral 2001; Braun 2005; Christmann and Taylor 2006; Corbett and Yeung 2008; Karapetrovic and Willborn 1998; Wilkinson and Dale 1999). Uzumeri (1997) refers to them as ‘lists of design rules to guide the creation of entire classes of management systems. Since systems theorists use the term metasystem for lists of this type, it follows that this type of management standard should be referred to as a meta-standard’ (Uzumeri 1997, p. 22). Corbett and Yeung (2008) use the term meta-standard ‘loosely to refer to standards that apply to broad processes (rather than individual products) and to entire families of such process standards’ (Corbett and Yeung 2008, p. 1).

These management standards are, of course, to be distinguished from the technical norms and specifications relating to those requirements with which particular products or processes need to comply. Even so, such a broad definition of standardization in the field of management could encompass, for example, international norms and guidelines dealing with accountancy and audits (the International Standards on Auditing, for instance) or such general management models as that of the EFQM (European Foundation for Quality Management). These guidelines and models are based on a set of guidelines and benchmarks developed by specific organizations and referring to a particular field of management. Although the focus and content of MSS may be quite different, their principles, structure, terminology and certification processes share common characteristics.

ISO 9001 and ISO 14001: the first global meta-standards

The ISO 9001 standard does not refer to compliance with an objective or with a particular result. That is, it is not a performance standard measuring the quality of companies' products or services. Rather, ISO 9001 proposes guidelines to systematize and formalize a series of company processes into a series of procedures, and to document this implementation. ISO 9001 standardizes procedures, duties and roles, rather than goals or outcomes (Braun 2005; Guler et al. 2002).

Compliance with ISO 9001, which can be certified by an institution accredited for this purpose, requires documentation to show the implementation of a quality management system, including standardized and documented procedures on the basic processes used to produce the product or service which the customer acquires. ISO 9001 standard is thus a management tool based on the systematization and formalization of tasks in order to achieve product homogeneity and to conform to the specifications established by the customer (Anderson et al. 1999).

Similarly, ISO 14001 does not fix environmental goals or environmental targets to be achieved (requirements for the prevention and reduction of the impact of pollution, for instance), as a result of the possible attainment of which a certificate would be obtained. Rather, this standard establishes requirements defining the operational systems to be complied with within companies in relation to activities which have an environmental impact (Delmas 2001; King and Lenox 2001). It is a model which provides a systematic framework within which to incorporate environmental concerns into a company's day-to-day operations.

From a global perspective, the successful diffusion of these MSS or meta-standards would appear to be closely linked to the basic impetus of the process of globalization of the Western economies, to the extending global supply chains and the still growing importance of transnational corporations (Braun 2005). In the current economic environment, in which outsourcing and relocation of companies' activities have become key strategic elements of global supply chains, it is necessary to foster a certain homogeneity of management systems in order to favour the development of such processes, and MSS may help to achieve this aim. As Boiral (2001, p. 80) states: ‘the development of management standards is part of the growing globalization of the world economy, which requires the adoption of international standards that facilitate exchanges and communication between countries’.

Approaches to the academic study of meta-standards


Standardization of management systems and its end-product, meta-standards, constitute a clear example of a multidimensional phenomenon which has implications of an extremely varied nature. It is for this reason that they have been studied from the perspective of a variety of disparate but related disciplines, such as international economics, management studies (and, more specifically, the study of operations management) and organizational sociology.

In this section of the paper, an attempt will be made to produce a synthesis of these approaches.1 First, the different theoretical approaches will be structured in three main groups: (1) technical approaches, in which we would place the standpoint of Operation Management and other technical standpoints involving a study of the meta-standards that refer to more or less general, mature fields such as Quality Management, Environmental Management and System Thinking, among others; (2) non-technical approaches, with the following four sub-approaches: self-regulation, decentralized institutions and signalling models, cartels and clubs and New Institutionalism; and (3) other approaches, in which we have grouped various pieces of research based on eclectic works and which are, consequently, difficult to classify.

The following two subsections focus on the presentation of the first two general approaches. The main works published in the literature could be included in them. In the research perspective that we have generically named ‘other approaches’, we include other works from various different standpoints, such as works of a pragmatic nature carried out from the standpoint of international economics and international business, those that focus on the same standpoint but which are clearly critical (e.g. Clapp 2001), highlight new challenges regarding governance and regulation2 (e.g. Haufler 1999), those carried out from the standpoint of economic geography (e.g. Neumayer and Perkins 2004, 2005) and more eclectic works which are difficult to classify (e.g. Naveh and Marcus 2004; Rondinelli and Vastag 2000).

Technical approaches

These approaches focus on the practical implications of meta-standards for organizations (e.g. Anderson et al. 1999; Benner and Veloso 2008; Casadesús and Karapetrovic 2005; Corbett and Kirsch 2001; Corbett and Yeung 2008; Martínez-Costa et al. 2008, 2009; Terziovski et al. 2003). Thus, a great deal of research has focused on the measurement of meta-standards' impacts in the field of operations management, quality management, environmental management and supply chain management (for a recent review of the works published on ISO 9001 from this perspective, see Sampaio et al. 2009). This measurement generally uses quantitative surveys, which have played a dominant role in the literature. Studies on the impacts of meta-standards have been conducted in various countries, often using a very similar methodology (e.g. questionnaire). Certain surveys have also been conducted from a transnational perspective (e.g. Corbett and Kirsch 2001). Various studies have analysed the motivations behind adopting meta-standards (e.g. Bansal and Roth 2000; Martínez-Costa et al. 2008; Sampaio et al. 2009; Yin and Schmeidler 2009). The effect on the performance of organizations has also been widely debated (e.g. Carlsson and Carlsson 1996; Corbett et al. 2005; Dick et al. 2008; Huarng et al. 1999; Martínez-Costa et al. 2008; Terziovski et al. 2003). For example, the benefits of ISO 9001 implementation have been widely studied. Thus, the ISO 9001 adoption has been associated with productivity and effectiveness (Douglas and Glen 2000; Jang and Lin 2008), quality improvement (Escanciano et al. 2001; Sun 2000), customer satisfaction (González-Torre et al. 2001; Moatazed-Keivani et al. 1999) and employee motivation (Kunnanatt 2007; Santos and Escanciano 2002). The same type of study has been undertaken with regard to the benefits of ISO 14001 (Bansal and Hunter 2003; Delmas 2001; González-Benito and González-Benito 2005; Yin and Schmeidler 2009).

In short, this first standpoint also includes – in quantitative terms – an extremely far-ranging literature, and is also the approach that was developed first, at a very early stage (in the early 1990s in the case of ISO 9001). Generally speaking, technical approaches tend to encourage organizations to adopt meta-standards by shedding light on their positive impacts, measured through quantitative studies carried out in various regions and sectors of activity. Nevertheless, these studies tend to overlook certain pitfalls and pervasive effects that can result from the adoption of meta-standards: paperwork, superficial implementation and lack of internal motivation (Boiral 2003, 2007; Christmann and Taylor 2006; Jiang and Bansal 2003; Walgenbach 2001). Moreover, technical approaches tend to focus on the standard implications for the organization and to neglect more global issues that can explain their international development and institutionalization throughout various sectors of activity, such as the use of meta-standards as self-regulation mechanisms, their role as signalling models and their social legitimacy in the eyes of certain stakeholders.

Non-technical approaches

These approaches are essentially focused on the analysis of the development, rationality and social legitimacy of meta-standards, from a more global and theoretical perspective. Through the adoption of meta-standards and their certification, legitimacy is awarded to the organizations adopting them, and this grants benefits beyond pure technical or efficiency advantages (Beck and Walgenbach 2005). This standpoint is most salient in New Institutionalism, although it can be argued that it is also present in other approaches and, on occasions, even in works which, in terms of both the views they express and the journals in which they are published, could be included among technical approaches (e.g. Nair and Prajogo 2009). This does not really come as a shock, above all if one takes into account that, according to some authors, third-party certification, like other forms of auditing certification, is primarily aimed at creating trust and social legitimacy in the eyes of stakeholders (Boiral and Gendron 2011; Power 2003).

Self-regulation refers to the adoption of voluntary standards (e.g. environmental standards such as ISO 14001) beyond the requirements of government regulation (Christmann and Taylor 2006; King and Lenox 2000; Prakash and Potoski 2007). As is underlined by O'Rourke (2006) and Christmann and Taylor (2001), the inability of some countries to establish a system of public regulation in relation to particular fields of activity such as the environment or employees' rights, has intensified companies' interest in self-regulation, a subject which is also of great relevance in the field of management standards. Despite liberalization, the global economy continues to be governed by rules, but the rules are changing, and international standards point to one such set of changes (Nadvi and Wältring 2004). If it is true, in fact, that in modern nation-states the main burden of regulatory activity is assumed by the public administration, which for this purpose has at its disposal various powers to sanction or to encourage, the new supranational organizations which have arisen out of the decline of the nation-state, such as the European Union, the United Nations or the OECD, do not benefit from the same hierarchical authority and power to sanction, which has led to the emergence of new regulatory institutions that do not belong to the traditional sphere of public regulation. For Mendel (2001), standardization thus represents a form of coordination and hybrid governance that is on the increase. All in all, from this perspective, standardization is thus perceived as a new form of alternative to traditional public regulation. The absence of a regulatory power of a global public nature – the task of designing, implementing and enforcing standards – tends to be assumed by different regional or global institutions of a non-governmental nature in areas that have traditionally belonged to the area of regulation by the authorities (Abbott and Snidal 2001; Brunsson and Jacobsson 2000; Neumayer and Perkins 2005). Among these new regulatory institutions, special mention should be made of the International Organization for Standardization. This body, known by its acronym ISO (International Standardization Organization),3 together with the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) and the ITU (International Telecommunication Union), form the main international organizations for standardization. The three bodies have, in conjunction with the WTO (World Trade Organization), formed a strategic alliance with the common aim of promoting the creation of a free and equitable global trading system. This agreement, known as the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, provides for the establishment of a code of conduct for the preparation, adoption and application of standards based on both the principles of non-discrimination and harmonization and the stated objective of preventing international standards becoming unnecessary technical barriers to free trade.

In short, what stands out in this standpoint is the notion of meta-standards as moving towards a global regulation tool. Within this standpoint, it would also be interesting to explain, among other things, the differences from the sub-standpoint associated with works that analyse the link between meta-standards and private international business regulation and soft law (e.g. Abbott and Snidal 2006; Vogel 2008). This sub-standpoint of soft laws differs from others in that it focuses on an analysis of the legitimacy and enforcement mechanism of initiatives such as ISO 14001, compared with hard law (Roht-Arriaza 2000; Vogel 2008).

Another perspective featuring in management studies, closely related to that referred to above, is the analysis of meta-standards from the perspective of decentralized institutions and signalling models, based on Michael Spence's theory of market signalling (King and Toffel 2009; Terlaak and King 2006). This perspective concentrates on analysing the role of meta-standards and their certification and the elimination of asymmetries in information. For this perspective, meta-standards can be seen as signals of supplier characteristics that lower search and monitoring costs in supply chains (Christmann and Taylor 2001; King et al. 2005). More specifically, Terlaak and King (2006) argue that many studies carried out from the perspective of the technical approach that have tried to analyse companies' motivation for adopting meta-standards have failed to explain fully the nature of certified management standards. These authors affirm that, from a theoretical perspective, the aforementioned studies do not explain why organizations implement and certify such meta-standards, given that, since the requirements of the standards are public and consultancy firms are available to aid the adoption of practices, companies do not need to certify the systems that they implement in order to gain an operational benefit (Terlaak and King 2006). In other words, they underline the idea that an organization does not need a certificate in order to make the standard work and that there must be non-technical reasons that explain the existence of meta-standards. Therefore, Terlaak and King (2006) argue that certified management standards constitute a form of private decentralized institution, because participation is voluntary and because a wide variety of stakeholders, rather than a single central authority, provide rewards for participating or sanctions for not participating. They emphasize the process of certification itself, which is, in their opinion, the distinguishing element of these decentralized institutions: ‘certification as a critical determinant of the function of management standards’ (Terlaak and King 2006, p. 1092). The importance given to the notion of information asymmetry could be identified as a distinguishing feature of the standpoint, which stresses that the raison d'être of meta-standards is to reduce information asymmetries between potential exchange partners.

Following an approach clearly related to that above, the phenomenon of meta-standards has also been studied (especially in relation to ISO 14001) from the viewpoint of the theory of cartels and clubs which can be applied to voluntary programmes in which certifiable meta-standards may also be included (particularly noteworthy for these purposes are the contributions from Diaye et al. (2007), Kerret (2008) and Potoski and Prakash (2004, 2005)). Basing their observations on the theoretical model proposed by Buchanan, Potoski and Prakash (2005) point out that, for companies, the benefits of membership (the so-called ‘club goods’) are the excludable branding certification that allows members to publicize their club membership and thus claim credit for their pro-environment activities. The key conceptual distinction made by the authors is that

clubs' excludable benefits are not the rewards members receive from external audiences for taking specific environmental action. Rather, excludable benefits stem from membership in ISO 9001 or ISO 14001, which provides a credible signal of a company's overall approach to environmental governance. (Potoski and Prakash 2005)

The notion of information asymmetries is also present in this standpoint, although one of the most obvious distinguishing features that can be established in this case is the importance given to the study of costs and benefits associated with meta-standard certification – the ‘additional costs’ and the ‘excludable branding benefits’ (Prakash and Potoski 2006). It is also highlighted that international trade buyers face higher transaction costs in identifying quality exporters because of spatial, cultural, and linguistic distances and that, as a result, meta-standards such as ISO 9001 or ISO 14001 were explicitly designed to solve the information asymmetry problem in international trade (Potoski and Prakash 2009).

Meta-standards have also been analysed from the perspective of New Institutionalism. This approach to the study of the adoption of meta-standards takes as its reference point institutional and neo-institutional theories of the study of organizations and suggests that firms obtain legitimacy by conforming to the dominant practices within their organizational field. In their seminal work, DiMaggio and Powell (1991) maintain that there are three types of external pressure that lead organizations towards isomorphism or homogeneity: coercive, mimetic and normative.4 First, coercive isomorphism may result from the pressure of external stakeholders to adopt meta-standards. For example, pressure from customers is one of the main drivers of ISO 9001 certification (Boiral 2003; Buttle 1997; Carlsson and Carlsson 1996). Second, mimetic isomorphism tends to occur when meta-standards are viewed by companies as exemplary forms of management practices. The imitation of organizations adopting these exemplary management practices tends to propagate certain standards such as ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 across national borders (e.g. Beck and Walgenbach 2005; Boiral 2007; Boiral and Amara 2009; Guler et al. 2002; Vasconcelos and Vasconcelos 2003). Third, for several authors, normative isomorphism occurs when an accreditation institution has the right to evaluate and inspect other organizations, granting the use of a seal or label certifying that the authorized organization follows the processes prescribed by the authorizer, and certificates such as ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 fall into this category (Guler et al. 2002; Mendel 2002; Vasconcelos and Vasconcelos 2003).

Generally speaking, organizations seek support and legitimacy in their institutional fields by adopting structural models that are perceived to be the best available. In that way, entities such as ISO are key players in defining the isomorphic properties of many institutional fields. One of the most prominent aspects of this sub-approach is that it focuses on analysing the cross-national dissemination of meta-standards and the institutional pressures that explain why companies certify. This standpoint emphasizes the importance of coercive, normative and mimetic forces and the mechanisms of international dissemination of the ISO 9001 standard (Casper and Hancke 1999; Guler et al. 2002; Mendel 2001). In short, the distinguishing feature of this sub-approach is that New Institutionalism explains what meta-standards are by focusing on the institutional pressures that encourage their adoption. Nevertheless, according to critical approaches based on New Institutionalism, meta-standards can be superficially implemented when organizations are mostly driven by the quest for social legitimacy rather than the search for improvements of internal practices (Boiral 2007; Christmann and Taylor 2006; Walgenbach 2001).

A research agenda on meta-standards

As already pointed out by Uzumeri (1997) more than a decade ago, meta-standards could lead to fundamental changes in management practice, since they represent a new management technology that may have a profound impact on the short-term evolution of management practice. This author also declared that scholars, practitioners and policy-makers should begin the serious task of mapping and analysing their broader implications (Uzumeri 1997).

It seems clear that the American scholar's wish has only partly come true. Although academic literature on the subject of meta-standards has grown in recent years, it is surprising that its volume has not increased even more, especially in view of the observation made by Corbett and Yeung (2008) to the effect that, ‘Once one considers that literally millions of organizations worldwide are directly impacted by such meta-standards, it is surprising that not more scholarly research exists on most of these standards’ (Corbett and Yeung 2008, p. 1). In our opinion, however, the principal shortfall lies in the badly structured and insufficiently incremental manner in which academic research into the phenomenon has developed.

Table 1 summarizes the principal research areas that are currently being produced through the medium of specialized academic literature, in an attempt to carry out a mapping exercise that may be of interest to researchers working in this research field.

Table 1. Academic study of meta-standards: an integrative review Thumbnail image of Thumbnail image of

Regarding research area 1, the complex process by which standards are created, along the lines of the complete work undertaken by Haufler (1999), carried out from a critical perspective, in relation to ISO 14001, should be studied further. As Nadvi and Wältring (2004) point out, global meta-standards formulated by private and public/private initiatives such as ISO imply new forms of global governance in the world economy, subject to potential conflicts that may arise as a consequence of the competing interests of private businesses and civil society stakeholders, an aspect which could constitute an extremely interesting subject for study and which has been little exploited to date in relation to meta-standards. Similarly, the problem of developing countries' limited capacity to exert an influence on the process of creation of meta-standards is also a subject of great interest on which outstanding work has already been carried out (e.g. Clapp 2001; Giovannucci and Ponte 2005; Nadvi 2008; Nadvi and Wältring 2004; Summers 2003), despite the fact that there is still much evidence to gather. In this research area, there is no clear dominating theoretical approach.

In the second research area, there are several studies carried out from the perspective of operations management (Casadesús et al. 2008; Corbett 2006; Franceschini et al. 2004; Marimón et al. 2006; Poksinska et al. 2003; Saraiva and Duarte 2003) which have tried to model the diffusion of meta-standards and have confirmed the existence of similar diffusion patterns for different types of meta-standard (e.g. ISO 9001, ISO 14001). In contrast, other studies carried out from other non-technical approaches have tried to analyse which factors explain geographical differences in the diffusion of meta-standards (Alburquerque et al. 2007; Corbett 2006; Corbett and Kirsch 2001; Delmas 2002; Grolleau et al. 2008; Guler et al. 2002; Neumayer and Perkins 2005; Potoski and Prakash 2004; Terlaak and King 2006; Vastag 2004). These studies stress that a positive correlation exists between the number of certificates and macro-economic variables such as the volume of direct overseas investment and the tendency to export to the EU. Alburquerque et al. (2007) conclude that ISO 9001 is driven primarily by geography and bilateral trade relations, whereas ISO 14001 is driven by geography and cultural similarity. In short, although many interesting results have been obtained, clear answers are still waiting to be found to such elementary questions. In this research area, the contributions made from a technical perspective are the dominant ones, with a noteworthy influence also from the approach of New Institutionalism.

The third research area is also very closely linked to that of the previous section, i.e. with the study of the pattern of diffusion of meta-standards. While the majority of existing studies on this subject are of an empirical character, with little development of a theoretical framework, there are nonetheless a certain number of noteworthy studies undertaken in the context of a clear and consistent conceptual and theoretical framework. In short, it can be said that there are two main theoretical approaches to this issue. From one perspective, based on the theoretical model established by New Institutionalism, it is suggested that meta-standards are adopted due to pressures of an external nature (Braun 2005; Christmann and Taylor 2001; Corbett and Kirsch 2001; Delmas 2002; Guler et al. 2002). This analytical perspective is criticized by academics, who argue that organizations are dynamic and active and are able to respond in different ways, according to their resources and capacities (Balzarova and Castka 2008; Beck and Walgenbach 2005; Christmann and Taylor 2003; Darnall and Edwards 2006; King and Lenox 2001; Nair and Prajogo 2009; Yin and Schmeidler 2009). Other more pragmatic and technical contributions have tried to establish a classification of the motivating forces that lead companies to implement and certify meta-standards (e.g. Bansal and Roth 2000; González-Benito and González-Benito 2005). In this type of empirical literature, there is no clear consensus among specialists as to the main driving forces behind meta-standards (on this issue, Martínez-Costa et al. 2008; Prajogo 2011; Sampaio et al. 2009 are to be recommended for the extensive review that is included of the literature on this subject).

In research area 4, the most quoted empirical studies carried out from the technical perspective have corroborated the positive effects or benefits of both ISO 9001 (e.g. Arauz and Suzuki 2004; Briscoe et al. 2005; Brown and Van der Wiele 1995, 1996; Buttle 1997; Carlsson and Carlsson 1996; Casadesús and Karapetrovic 2005; Huarng et al. 1999; Jones et al. 1997; Tsiotras and Gotzamani 1996) and ISO 14001 (e.g. Bansal and Bogner 2002; Corbett and Russo 2001; Florida and Davidson 2001; King and Lenox 2001; Melnyk et al. 2002; Montabon et al. 2000; Rondinelli and Vastag 2000; Russo and Harrison 2001;). Regarding the impact on performance, several studies on ISO 9001 (e.g. Benner and Veloso 2008; Corbett et al. 2005; Dick et al. 2008; Häversjö 2000; Martínez-Costa et al. 2008; Wayhan and Balderson 2007) and ISO 14001 (e.g. Andrews et al. 2003; Jiang and Bansal 2003; King et al. 2005; Melnyk et al. 2003; Potoski and Prakash 2005; Russo 2002) have used objective or factual measures (i.e. accounting data, data on emissions), while the majority of studies have used perceptual measures obtained by surveys (i.e. based on questionnaires) to analyse the impact of meta-standards on performance.5 Overall the results are mixed, but in a majority of studies a significant positive relationship is found between the adoption of meta-standards and a company's performance. In this research area, the contributions made from a technical perspective are also the dominant ones.

Regarding research area 5, although the majority of studies into the adoption of meta-standards assume homogeneous adoption – they concentrate on the question of whether or not a company has third-party certification as the sole criterion to demonstrate that implementation has been completed – more and more studies are now beginning to emphasize the heterogeneity of their adoption both in the case of ISO 9001 (Boiral 2003; Vasconcelos and Vasconcelos 2003; Arauz and Suzuki 2004; Naveh and Marcus 2004; Biazzo 2005; Beck and Walgenbach, 2005; Briscoe et al. 2005; Christmann and Taylor 2006; Boiral and Roy 2007; Jang and Lin 2008; Nair and Prajogo 2009; Heras-Saizarbitoria 2011) and for ISO 14001 (Boiral 2001; Boiral, 2007; Yin and Schmeidler 2009; Heras-Saizarbitoria et al. 2011a). In the case of this research area, it is clear that the theoretical approach of New Institutionalism is the prevalent one.

The sixth research area is a more pragmatic/operational one. The success of the diffusion of management standards in various different fields of company management has led organizations to consider their implementation in a single integrated management system (Beckmerhagen et al. 2003; Karapetrovic 2003; Karapetrovic and Willborn 1998; Wilkinson and Dale 2001). At the same time, the first studies analysing these aspects have begun to be published in the academic world (Bernardo et al. 2009; Fresner and Engelhardt 2004; Salomone 2008; Zeng et al. 2006; Zutshi and Sohal 2005). Given the technical specialist nature of the theme, in this research area it is also clear that the technical perspective is the dominant theoretical approach.

Finally, research area 7 deals with specialist consultancy and the third-party auditing and registration industry related to meta-standards. Various studies of the field have confirmed the importance of external consultancy services in the process of adoption of meta-standards (e.g. Marimón et al. 2002; Sakofsky 1993; Vloeberghs and Bellens 1996). Similarly, although it is stressed that the role of the auditor is critical for the adoption of meta-standards (Sakofsky 1993; Terziovski and Power 2007; Williamson et al. 1996) and requires careful interpretation and training, several studies point out that quality auditors are frequently unfamiliar with the client's industry, quality system and process or products/services, and that this results in a poor-quality audit (Chan et al. 1993; Hutchins 1993; Williamson et al. 1996). In a recent paper, Boiral and Gendron (2011) point out that, although audit failure crises have not been as prominent in the context of the audits of meta-standards as they have been in the context of financial audits, ‘There is a significant gap between the imagery of rationality and infallibility surrounding ISO audits and what these audits can actually deliver’ (Boiral and Gendron 2011, p. 14). However, it should be taken into account that the conclusions drawn by the authors are not based on sufficient empirical evidence, as they themselves acknowledge, which is why empirical work will need to be carried out on this interesting and controversial research area. In this area, special mention should also be made of the contributions made from a technical theoretical perspective, although attention should also be drawn to the fact that interesting contributions are starting to be published from the New Institutionalism perspective (e.g. Boiral and Gendron 2011), based on a more developed and complex framework.

Discussion and conclusion

The objective of this paper was to analyse, through an integrative study, the main findings of the literature on meta-standards and the avenues for future research, based on the most significant knowledge gap identified. The concept of management standard or meta-standard is complex, multi-faceted and has been extensively analysed in the literature from various perspectives, including operations management, strategic management, international economics, economic geography and organizational sociology. The level of analysis has ranged from a pragmatic approach to the more theoretical level, but without much inter-relation between the various different research areas.

It can be stated that the conclusions drawn from the extensive body of academic literature available on the subject have helped us to understand better why and how these standards have been developed and disseminated. In this sense, the non-technical contributions have proved to be of special interest owing to the solid nature of the basic theoretical principles they put forward. Nevertheless, there still remain many issues to be explored and a set of key knowledge gaps on which research should focus in the future, using both quantitative and qualitative research methods (see Table 2).

Table 2. Knowledge gaps on meta-standards: a research agenda Thumbnail image of

Regarding the diffusion of meta-standards, since the temporal aspects of the adoption of meta-standards might also be important, there could be a link between these studies and others of a theoretical and empirical nature which have already become established features in the field of management, and deal in particular with the influence of fashionable practices in business management (Abrahamson 1991, 1996). It may also interesting to analyse the impact of the global financial and economic crisis on the decertification process, which has recently started to be analysed in the relevant literature (Casadesús et al. 2008; Marimón et al. 2009) – something that concerns, above all, the ISO itself (ISO 2005).

However, although many interesting results have been obtained, clear answers are still waiting to be found to such elementary questions as the relationship between the economic competitiveness of countries and the number of ISO certificates awarded. Thus, very competitive economies such as Germany and Finland have a relatively low level of certificates, whereas less competitive countries (e.g. Italy, Spain, Israel) have a very high level of certificates. In our opinion, in order to make progress in this research area, importance should be given to approaches with a more pragmatic vision, which might be able to throw light on this phenomenon, such as, for example, those approaches which gather specific evidence linked to the various different public and private programmes to promote meta-standards that have been established in an international context.

As far as studies that attempt to analyse the motivation behind adopting meta-standards are concerned, the perceptions of not only general managers, but also of internal stakeholders (such as middle managers or workers themselves who do not perform management tasks) and those outside the company (customers, suppliers, consultants and auditors) should be taken into account. In this way, a richer and more complete view of a process as complex as the one we are faced with could be obtained. In the case of studies that attempt to analyse the impact on performance based on perceptual or self-reporting measurements, problems of bias should be taken into account. Thus, Corbett et al. (2005), Heras et al. (2002), Wayhan and Balderson (2007), Wayhan et al. (2002) and Yin and Schmeidler (2009) have pointed out possible bias related to performance variables based on managers' ratings or on data supplied by the companies themselves, since the person providing the information has a personal interest in overvaluing it. Thus, when it is possible, it seems better to ensure the use of more objective data or indicators from existing records (e.g. commercial databases containing economic and financial information, or publicly available databases with information on environmental performance). Furthermore, as stressed by Christmann and Taylor (2006), future research on the drivers for the adoption of meta-standards should go beyond treating customers as a homogeneous group by including the types of requirements and preferences that different customers impose on suppliers.

However, there is no doubt that one of the most thought-provoking research areas – owing to its diverse implications – is that related to the internalization of meta-standards (research area 5). There is a clear knowledge gap in this field, and empirical studies (especially those based on quantitative methodology) are necessary in order to analyse the perceptions of the various stakeholders with regard to the process of adoption and internalization of meta-standards. Furthermore, as both Christmann and Taylor (2006) and Nair and Prajogo (2009) have pointed out, owing to the increasing importance of context dependence, future research should explore the sources of variation in the quality of implementation of meta-standards in cross-country studies with different cultures and political environments. As Christmann and Taylor (2006) underlined, researchers need to acknowledge the limitation of certification as a measure, and need to evaluate how variations in the quality of standard implementation may affect their results.

Finally, for future work, research should also focus on studying audits by third parties – one of the processes that characterize the phenomenon of meta-standards and one which has not received much attention from researchers in recent years. It would be interesting to analyse the consistency of external auditing services rigorously, limited as they are by the fact that they are contracted and paid for by the company that wishes to become certified. This issue has already been analysed in other areas of business as a result of the accounting scandals that occurred in the US a few years ago and, more recently, with the problems facing credit-rating institutions in the financial crisis that arose in 2008. Indeed, as has been demonstrated by recent scandals in the accountancy sector and the financial market, third-party audit of meta-standards – an activity that shares certain features with that of account auditing and credit-rating – is no guarantee of honesty (Boiral and Gendron 2011; King et al. 2005). This question might be related to a possible erosion of the prestige and credibility of management standards, a danger which has been pointed out ever since the phenomenon began (Askey and Dale 1994). Thus, with a view to the future it would also be interesting to analyse whether, as a result of the rapid expansion in the diffusion of meta-standards, the quality of audits has improved, with better-trained and better-qualified auditors being able to provide a more helpful auditing style, as some authors maintain (e.g. Terziovski and Power 2007), or whether it is rather the case that a rapid decline in quality has taken place. As pointed out by Brumm (1997), the existence of many entities capable of performing the required audits and issuing the relevant certificates was pointed out as a weakness that favoured instrumental implementation practices, contributing to the erosion of the prestige and credibility of meta-standards, as recently stressed by several authors (e.g. Boiral and Gendron 2011; Christmann and Taylor 2006; Yeung and Mok 2005).

In short, further critical and rigorous empirical studies are necessary in order to analyse the real perceptions of the various stakeholders (consumers, managers, suppliers, intermediary clients, workers and public administration) regarding the adoption of meta-standards and their effects. However, in order for the results of such research to constitute a clear contribution to an improvement in knowledge about this phenomenon, the multidisciplinary orientation of these studies is an essential requirement.

Meta-standards regulate management practices in a broad range of companies around the globe. The study of the complex role of the adoption of these meta-standards by researchers of very different backgrounds and different cultural and political environments could provide valuable contributions to a better understanding of their real role, for both academic and practitioner purposes.

Lastly and as far as the limitations of the review of literature conducted are concerned, we wonder whether the concept of meta-standard has sufficient maturity or, in other words, has a sufficiently solid conceptual foundation, given the continued fragmentation of the management field (Hodgkinson 2001). Nevertheless, as we have attempted to argue in this paper, we understand that, despite its complexity and clearly multi-faceted nature, the concept of meta-standard meets these requirements and is a sufficiently mature, clear and well-defined management concept. Furthermore, we must also consider whether the possible subjective bias in the work is a limitation. Indeed, as is the case with all integrative reviews about a multi-faceted and complex subject matter such as the one studied here, in which reviews are not of an obviously systematic nature, it is clear that other ways of mapping the academic knowledge in the field might well exist. For example, other authors might define approaches that have tended to study meta-standards in the academic literature differently. Despite the limitations referred to, we understand that reviews such as the one contained in this work are necessary to the field, to give, among other reasons, other researchers who are interested in reviewing this complex line of work cause to make further contributions that may start to clarify and provide evidence of the maturity of this field.


  • 1

    At this point we would like to express our gratitude for the guidance provided by one of the three reviewers of this paper, as this helped us in the complex structuring work of the different standpoints referred to in the study that have analysed meta-standards.

  • 2

    This is a sub-approach with a clear link to that of self-regulation, but which is put together in a different way as it has far less theoretical basis.

  • 3

    The International Organization for Standardization was reconstituted as the successor organization to the short-lived International Standards Association, which had already been established in the 1920s (Braun 2005).

  • 4

    Other followers of this line of theory maintain that these processes can be divided into coercive, normative and cognitive mechanisms leading to organizational isomorphism (Braun 2005; Guler et al. 2002; Mendel 2002).

  • 5

    For a review of this type of study, Benner and Veloso (2008), Martínez-Costa et al. (2009), Molina-Azorín et al. (2009) and Sampaio et al. (2009) are interesting in the case of ISO 9001, and Molina-Azorín et al. (2009) and Heras-Saizarbitoria et al. (2011b) in the case of ISO 14001.