What Is the Context of Your Organization?

It was about a year ago that ISO – the International Organization for Standardization – released ISO 9001:2015, “Quality Management System Requirements”. The standard differs in structure and in concept from its predecessor (ISO 9001:2008) in numerous ways.

Some differences in the two versions of the quality standard are large and some are small. Significant changes include:

  • Consideration of the organization’s context (clause 4);
  • Risk-based thinking (clause 6.1 and elsewhere);
  • An increased emphasis on services, to further promote the idea that an organization’s products aren’t limited to tangible goods (throughout the standard); and
  • A greater emphasis on the responsibilities of top management (clause 5).

Now, we’re going to look at the context of an organization. We often hear or read of someone who claims their words were “taken out of context” when they were quoted. What does that mean – to take out of context? Basically, it’s about changing the meaning of a word or phrase.

When someone accuses another person of taking their words out of context, they mean the specific quote does not tell the whole story. Significant details were left out, possibly on purpose. It’s extremely important to know everything that was said (the entire speech, interview, conversation), as well as the setting, the players, the intended audience, and even the time of day and the weather. Those make up the context of the remark.

Consider this statement: “They are growing so fast, it’s unbelievable.” Is that a CEO, talking at a shareholders’ meeting about how well one of the company’s divisions performed last fiscal year? Is it a friend or relative making a comment about someone’s children? Or is it something else? Without context, you don’t know.

Here’s another example: You’re shown a picture of a man and woman in front of a shop. Because it’s a black-and-white photo and the paper is cracked and yellowed, you guess it was taken a few years ago.


People standing in front of a store (place and time unknown)

They tell you nothing about the photo. You start to speculate. Why are they showing you the photograph? Who are these people? Where was the picture taken? When? By whom? Was it a special occasion?[1] It’s been said that every picture tells a story and that a picture is worth a thousand words, but without context, a picture is virtually worthless.

It is the same in the business world. You cannot evaluate an organization fairly or accurately without considering all its aspects. “They’re a ‘Fortune 500’ company” or “they offer IT services” tells you something about an organization, but is it enough for you to decide whether to do business with them?

Of course, it isn’t. You need more information – you need context. What are the issues they’re dealing with internally? What pressures/opportunities do they face from within? Also, what external issues and forces affect them or the quality of their offerings?

This leads us to your organization’s context. Many places, people, and events – sometimes separately, sometimes in combination – make up the context of your organization, including:

  • The nature of the organization;
  • The organization’s products and services;
  • Its customers;
  • Its age;
  • Its complexity;
  • Its competition;
  • Its size and scope;
  • The physical makeup of each individual location;
  • Whether it’s local, regional, nationwide, or international;
  • The laws and regulations it must observe;
  • The makeup of its management and workforce;
  • Whether it’s publicly or privately held; and
  • Probably many others.

So, what is the context of your organization?

Another aspect of your organization’s context concerns “relevant interested parties”. Can you think of some parties that would have an interest in your organization’s well-being? Some of these interested parties are internal (employees and owners), while others are external (vendors, customers, utilities, taxing authorities, law enforcement bodies, etc.).

What makes these so-called interested parties relevant? According to ISO 9001:2015, if the party affects or is affected by your organization’s quality management system, it is relevant. Examples of relevant interested parties include, of course, your employees and your customers. Meeting their quality requirements is extremely important.

On the other hand, a family living in close proximity wouldn’t be relevant according to ISO 9001 and neither would a restaurant that caters to many of your employees and contractors. They want your organization to flourish, naturally. If your company struggles for a protracted period or dies off, there goes the neighborhood. They have more than a casual interest in how well you’re doing.

However, since these parties are not impacted by your quality management system, nor do they have any impact on the efficiency or effectiveness of your QMS, they are not relevant interested parties.

How about you? Who or what are your relevant interested parties?


[1] You may not remember a time before smartphones and digital media, when people didn’t always have a camera with them and when they did, they had to have film in the camera. They had to take a completed roll of film to a camera shop or a drugstore for processing and wait a week or more for the prints to come back from “the lab”. Ergo, the camera usually came out only on special occasions.


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Posted in corporate culture, ISO 9001:2015, Quality management

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