Standardizing Social Responsibility? New Perspectives on Guidance Documents and Management System Standards for Sustainable Development

IEEE - Transactions on Engineering Management, 59(4), 717-727 (doi: 10.1109/TEM.2012.2183639)

36 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2012 Last revised: 13 Feb 2013

See all articles by Rüdiger Hahn

Rüdiger Hahn

Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf

Date Written: March 9, 2012


In recent years there has been increasing pressure on private players to take over responsibilities for social/environmental issues. However, a critical mindset towards private enterprises and their influence on societies often prevails. To help organization deal with this ambiguity, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published ISO 26000 which provides guidance on the integration of social responsibility into management processes. The ISO emphasizes that ISO 26000 is not a management system standard. However, its practical value would be rather limited if it merely provided a common understanding of social responsibility instead of also facilitating management routines and practices. A closer look at its content indeed reveals some distinct elements of a management system standard. This brings up the following questions: What kind of standard is ISO 26000, which opportunities and constraints does ISO 26000 hold, and whether or not the current understanding of management system standards is sufficient to characterize ISO 26000? The paper comes to the conclusion that the current categorization of standards is not sufficient to fully comprehend ISO 26000. A new type of management system standard is developed. The potential benefits of the new standard, the managerial relevance, and specific limitations of ISO 26000 are discussed.

Throughout this paper, ISO 26000 will be framed as a new type of management system standard. Hitherto existing management system standards aim at providing an efficient organizational management infrastructure. For an elusive topic such as SR however, values and principles within society are decisive factors for a successful implementation since they determine the expectations towards an organization. ISO 26000 seems to be able to integrate this normative input. It combines a process - and a content-focus derived from an extensive and inclusive development process. With its broadly accepted normative guidance, the standard provides organizations with valuable predictability regarding the social “license to operate” which businesses are often asked to acquire. This can help to lower transaction costs since it removes some of the process of finding the license to operate from individual negotiations between companies and society, to a more general and predictable footing by providing a universal standard. Furthermore, the emphasis on a continuous discoursive stakeholder involvement offers opportunities to constantly adapt and refine organizational practices. This could be of special value for potential users to meet the ever changing societal expectations for SR. The paper concludes by discussing the managerial benefits of using ISO 26000.

Keywords: ISO 26000, standard, social responsibility, management system, metastandard

JEL Classification: M10, M14

Suggested Citation

Hahn, Rüdiger, Standardizing Social Responsibility? New Perspectives on Guidance Documents and Management System Standards for Sustainable Development (March 9, 2012). IEEE - Transactions on Engineering Management, 59(4), 717-727 (doi: 10.1109/TEM.2012.2183639), Available at SSRN:

Rüdiger Hahn (Contact Author)

Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf ( email )


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