Integrated management systems - Clause 4 - Context of the organization


With this post I begin an analysis of the common clauses and requirements for integrated management systems within the high level structure (HLS) of ISO standards.

In the previous post I have dealt with the preliminary common elements and the first three clauses of these management system standards, considering the following:

-Foreword -Introduction - Scope - Normative references - Terms and definitions.

I will now start with the invisible, forgotten, misunderstood clause of the management systems standards. I am referring to Clause 4. Context of the organization, which from my perspective is the least understood and worst used clause among all clauses of these standards.

I am convinced that this is not the only misunderstood clause in the management system standards, but I have no doubt that it is the worst used of all, and I believe that it is largely due to the fact that this clause is not well supported in these standards.

I will not tell you that this clause 4 is the most important of all those established in the  management systems standards, within the HLS, because I believe that they all have a reasonably equivalent importance, but in what I am very clear, so I can affirm, is that this clause is no less important than the rest of them. And I mention this because many organizations, maybe due that they do not fully understand their content, use some information that does not generate any value in terms of their strategic direction but, since my point of view, evaluators of the certification bodies do not fully understand it either, and the evaluators of accreditation bodies seem they don´t care about it, they does allow them to obtain their certification for their standardized management system, pretending that they comply with the different requirements established in this clause.

I will try to analyse these requirements as clearly as possible, trying to support organizations that intend to use them in the best way, not only to meet these requirements before any external  organization, but to use them for their own benefit through a better development of its strategic planning, and consequently, as for its performance.

In the same way, I would like to put this theme for discussion among professionals in these fields, so that we can clarify some of the shadows that remain in these standards, promoting an even greater applicability of these, and enriching our knowledge.

In a previous post I declared myself as a fan of this management system standards, since ISO 9001 was in DIS (draft international standard)  stage for its first version, and this was in 1986, several months before this standard was published in its first version in 1987, and I have found fascinating the development of this and all management system standards have had, and especially with the application of the High Level Structure (HLS) for these documents in the last years. So, I would not in any way intend to disqualify these standards, but I believe that some improvements can still be proposed for this HLS.

In order to do this, we must first identify this clause and the subclauses it comprises:


Clause 4. Context of the organization


Let us first identify the structure of this clause and the sub-clauses that are included in it, with which the presentation of requirements in these  management system standards begins.


Regarding this clause, the ISO 9000:20151) defines the following term:



This definition may not be easily understood, but what it is telling us is that if an organization does not adequately identify its context, it may have a poor definition of its objectives, and from there, a poor performance. From this perspective, this clause refers to activities prior to strategic planning.


I am going to present this scheme to you from a different point of view than some requirements of the standard. Let's think that in order to have a reasonable expectation for an organization to be able to operate in a meaningful way, it must carry out some planning activities. But, in order to an organization to be able to carry out its planning properly, it must have some support elements, such as the mission and the vision, and if its possible, with the identification of the relevant values ​​for the organization, which is what together is known as the "organization`s purpose." We can visualize this in the following way:



 As I mentioned previously, these three elements are generally considered to be the basis for the organization's top management to carry out its strategic planning, but they are not established as requirements in any management system standard.

However, there are two management system standards that define these terms; the ISO 9000: 2015 standard mentioned above, and the ISO 21001: 20182)standard, and they do it in the following way: 



Well, in fact, the ISO 22886: 20203) defines these terms as well, but taking up the same definitions as ISO 9000: 2015.

There are other standards that establish definitions of these terms, but I do not include them here because although they are management system standards, are not within the HLS, but I mention it because it indicates the relevance of the handling of these terms in standardization schemes, and especially in relation to management systems. As you can see, these definitions have similarities, but they have their differences. Personally, I think the definition that ISO 21001: 2018 presents is better, because I consider that the mission, as the vision, should not be established by the top management, but by the owners of the organization, and not always are the same persons, nor at least, with the same intentions or interests.

What can be clear to us is that the mission is, in a formal way, the justification for the existence of an organization; and the vision is what the organization itself is intended to be in the long term.

However, I believe that these elements have not been adequately defined or identified with the relevance they really have for organizations and, in particular, so that they can carry out an appropriate strategic planning, and hence, the tactical and operational planning of any  management system based on standards.

In relation to the term "values", I have always found it as a curious thing that it is not defined in any management system standard, and that ISO 9001: 20154) is the sole standard under the HLS that uses this term, and only in Note 3 of sub-clause 4.1 Understanding the organization and its context, which reads as follows: “Understanding the internal context can be facilitated by considering issues related to values, culture, knowledge and the performance of the organization.”

The other standard that refers to "values" is ISO 31000:20185), although it was not prepared under the HLS, it mentions them in section 5.4.1 Understanding the organization and its context, in relation to external stakeholders and internal stakeholders, but not in relation to the organization itself.

In relation to  this  element, the ISO 22316: 20176)  standard contains the following definition:

Values: beliefs an organization adheres to and the standards that it seeks to observe.

And ISO 30400: 20167) standard contains the following:

Organizational values: aspirational or articulated standards, behaviour, principles or concepts that an organization considers important.

This also shows us the importance of values ​​in an organization.

And finally, we have another term that is mentioned in all the management systems standards under the HLS, which is "strategic direction", but none of them defines it or establishes it as a requirement, but it is stated that it is a very relevant planning activity of top management in relation to all management systems.

Similarly, another curious situation on these issues is that this same ISO 9001: 2015 standard, in this same sub-clause 4.1, is the only management system standard that refers to both the purpose and the strategic direction of the organization, considering them as two important elements. All other management systems standards (ISO 14001: 2015, ISO 22000: 2018, ISO 37001: 2016, ISO 45001: 2018, ISO 5001: 2018, among others), refer to the organization`s purpose, in this sub-clause, but without mentioning its strategic direction.

On the other hand, within the high level structure, it is indicated that in subclause 5.1 Leadership and commitment of all management system standards under this structure, the following is established as one of the requirements:

“Top management shall demonstrate leadership and commitment to the discipline's particular  management system (XXX), ensuring that the XXX policy and XXX objectives for the XXX management system are established and are consistent with the context and strategic direction of the organization;

Although none of these management system standards defines the term strategic direction, the ISO 9000: 2015 standard contains the definition of the following term:

- Strategy: Plan to achieve a long-term or global objective.

And the ISO 21001: 2018 standard, mentioned above, indicates another definition of this term:

Strategy: plan to acomplish the organization`s  mission and achieve the organization`s vision.

What the ISO 24513: 20198) standard, among other standards, does define is the following term:

Strategic plan: Document identifying goals and objectives to be pursued by an organization over a long-term period in support of its mission and being consistent with its values.

Due to this information that I have presented, from these management systems standards, or any other international standards, I am suggesting to ISO, through the ISO/TMB/JTCG “Joint technical Coordination Group on MSS” (Management Systems standards), so that they define precisely these terms that I have mentioned here, such as: "Purpose of the organization, mission, vision, values, strategic direction, strategic planning", and include them in the HLS, as fundamental elements for planning management system standards.

About this point the ISO 31000:2018 standard, in the same sub-clause 5.4.1, establishes the following:

“Examining the organization’s internal context may include, but is not limited to:

vision, mission and values;  . . .”

This is another reference of the importance of these elements.

If we can identify these fundamental elements for planning in an organization, and include the requirements of Clause 4 of these standards, we could thus understand the flow of strategic and operational planning:



1) ISO 9000:2015 - Quality management systems — Fundamentals and vocabulary.

2) ISO 21001: 2018 - Educational organizations — Management systems for educational organizations — Requirements with guidance for use.

3) ISO 22886: 2020 – Healthcare organization management — Vocabulary.

4) ISO 9001: 2015 – Quality management systems — Requirements.

5) ISO 31000: 2018 – Risk management — Guidelines.

6)      ISO 22316:2017  Security and resilience — Organizational resilience — Principles and attributes.

7) ISO 30400: 2016 Human resource management — Vocabulary.

8) ISO 24513: 2019 - Service activities relating to drinking water supply, wastewater and stormwater systems — Vocabulary.



Ernesto Palomares Hilton