by Khemraj Ramful, Senior Adviser, Export Quality Management, ITC (@KhemrajRamful) and Erich Kieck, Director, Capacity Building, ISO (@isostandards)
When talking to a number of small business managers about the COVID-19 crisis, their responses usually revolve around four words, the four ‘Us’: unprecedented, unexpected, unprepared and uncertain.
One thing is certain: micro and small businesses are among the hardest hit in the business community. Yet they have an important role in this turmoil for both social and economic reasons. They employ more than 70 % of the world labour force and they are essential for maintaining a stable food supply chain, providing cleaning materials (for example, soap, sanitizers, disinfectants) as well as personal protective equipment or medical devices.
Being unprepared is the main cause of challenges
The most common challenges for small businesses relate to access to clients and markets, concerns with raw material supply and decreased production and demand. Border shutdowns in many cases have disrupted logistics, affecting the flows of inputs and outputs as well as labour. Some of those who identified the local/domestic market as their main market responded that they are less affected.
The main cause of these challenges is the unpreparedness of many of the enterprises to face this type of situation. Although risk management is an essential component of the management system of any organization, this crisis has revealed that some enterprises have underestimated its importance and others, especially small businesses, may lack the knowledge of how to implement a risk management system. The management systems of these small businesses are not resilient enough to enable them to navigate through this pandemic with appropriate mitigation measures and readiness to tap into opportunities despite the numerous tools developed for that purpose.
Standards as life support
Standards are a set of powerful business tools for small businesses. They inspire confidence, drive down costs, boost productivity, build resilience, reduce risks and improve profits. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has developed a number of international standards that can be very useful to small businesses to limit the impact of any crisis and be better prepared to rebound thereafter.
The relevant ISO standards fall into two categories: the first concerns security, resilience and risk management, which includes business continuity management, emergency management, crisis management and supply chain security. These tools prepare enterprises to face a crisis. The second category helps enterprises meet new market requirements. These include the management system standards on quality, food safety, occupational health and safety, social accountability as well as the specific product standards.
Here are a few pertinent standards of the first category:
- ISO 22301:2019, Business continuity management systems – Requirements, with the supporting standard ISO 22313:2020 that provides guidance and recommendations for applying the requirements.
- ISO/TS 22318:2015, Business continuity management systems – Guidelines for supply chain continuity.
- ISO 22320:2018, Emergency management – Guidelines for incident management.
- ISO 22316:2017, Organizational resilience – Principles and attributes.
- ISO 31000:2018, Risk management – Guidelines.
- ISO 56002:2019, Innovation management system – Guidance.
The second category of standards includes international standards already widely used by enterprises. They have now become even more important in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. These include:
- ISO 45001:2018, Occupational health and safety management systems – Requirements with guidance for use.
- ISO 22000:2018, Food safety management systems – Requirements for any organization in the food chain.
- ISO 9001:2015, Quality management systems – Requirements.
What standards bodies and other support organizations can do
National standards bodies need to actively engage the private sector as a means of providing solutions, support and advice on relevant standards available to small businesses. There are already a few good initiatives. ISO and its members have made available, free of charge in read-only format, a number of standards and their national adoption relating to management systems, protective equipment and medical devices. Other efforts of ISO members can be found at www.iso.org/covid19-members.
Some national standards bodies have built on this initiative: for example, the French national organization for standardization (AFNOR) has produced a reference document with needed requirements when making protective masks. Small businesses can reach out to national standards bodies at https://www.iso.org/members.html.
In addition, international organizations in partnership with business support organizations can provide technical assistance to small businesses related to training and advisory services to implement these standards, both for making their management systems resilient and for ensuring the quality and safety of their products.
For instance, the International Trade Centre (ITC) in collaboration with local institutions assists small businesses in developing countries in improving their market access by leveraging international standards such as ISO 9001, ISO 22000 and ISO 45001. ITC and ISO are working together to shine a light on how small businesses in the food industry can take better advantage of ISO standards to overcome the challenges that Covid-19 has brought, especially in the area of food safety.
Furthermore, conformity assessment bodies, including laboratories accredited to ISO/IEC 17025, should develop services to ensure the quality and safety of products like sanitizers, personal protective equipment, gloves, etc.
And most importantly, there should be closer collaboration and coordination among international organizations, business support organizations and regulatory bodies to synergize their efforts in assisting small businesses and ensuring a fair business environment. While international organizations can develop tools such as guidelines, assessment kits and training materials on implementing international standards, business support organizations (including national standards bodies) can customize and deploy them. Regulatory bodies have to ensure there is a level-playing field on the market and that dishonest suppliers do not compete with low quality and unsafe products.
There is no doubt that ‘business as usual’ will not prevail after this crisis, especially for small businesses. As with any crisis, there are lessons learnt and opportunities. A number of standards can build the resilience and competitiveness of enterprises and their judicious use and implementation may help small businesses thrive and come out of the pandemic even stronger than before.