ISO certification: What is it good for?

by Luigi Guarino on November 22, 2012

Do genebanks need ISO certification to maintain standards? Or accreditation. Or whatever. We have talked about the issue of quality assurance here in the past. But a random Facebook status update of mine on the subject recently elicited a stronger reaction than I had seen in a while. What do you think? Comment here, or on Facebook. We’ll figure out a way of bringing it all together if there’s a good response.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael November 23, 2012 at 7:29 am

I can’t believe there is even a debate about the usefulness of genebank certification. Certification is not a costly distraction or a mere prestige thing. For any serious organisation/company/institution who can afford it, it is a means to demonstrate credible commitment to reliable procedures that are in place to ensure the outputs or outcomes they claim to be delivering. Would we trust a food company if it had no certified policy in place to reduce the risk of product contamination? The HACCP certification standard, e.g., requires food operators to identify hazards or potentially unsafe practices that need to be addressed by designing control procedures that can be verified and audited, both internally and by external certifiers. The same principles can and should be applied to genebanks. Don’t we all know that clonal (and perhaps seed?) germplasm collections, such as cacao, have massive misidentification problems? It’s because in the rarest cases do genebanks have proper and well-documented chain-of-custody procedures in place. Mislabelling events may be rare but they are additive and lead to the mess that no one talks about. Similar things can be said about documentation, true-to-type maintenance, etc. You can still cheat or do a lousy job, but with a certification you are much less likely to be able to do so. As an aside: if you are a genebank manager, you should always go for a certification. It’s a drudgery to implement, but you may be able to blackmail your management to provide the support that you need to run a genebank properly and that you are often denied. Because the CGIAR et al. like to talk about their crown jewels but they don’t necessarily treat them as such.

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Cédric Jeanneret November 23, 2012 at 11:39 am

The process leading to an official certification is an institutional exercise of the ‘good’ kind. In-house certification is maybe cheaper and more flexible/less rigid (see FB discussion), but it is not the point of this somewhat cumbersome procedure.

As a directive from coming the top, getting certified officially will need the staff’s consent and motivation: it takes a bit of preparation and consultation beforehand to make sure most staff are on board. For everybody affected by the certification, the exercise is time-consuming and oft demands change in daily management habits/routine. If you decide not to go with the official certification, the staff will simply not take the thing seriously: ‘arrangements’ and laxness emerge over time because efforts and due diligence are not rewarded.

The process leading to an annual certification is not set in stone either. As long as you show due diligence and cover all mandatory corners, you are free to build your own templates and routines. ISO certification processes are well documented (for ISO 14000 and 9000 protocols especially) and help, even free, is readily available online. Departments and institutions having similar activities (i.e. of the same nature) can share ideas on the templates of the required new management systems.

The exercise feels a bit like spring cleaning: actual management habits are assessed (hire an intern to do the interviews and gather info, ahem), dust is removed from the management manuals… From personal experience, the process gets senior managers excited and interns alike: we get to draw up the present system, identify – as is done for HACCP – the critical nodes and bottlenecks, grey zones, insufficiencies, etc. Staff is consulted and does a good job participating. Yes, sure, a bit of corporate pep talk is sometimes the necessary evil here.

It’s good to have your house in order, neat and clean filings of events, indexes, documents and standards. As a manager, it gives you a fresh overview of your activities and staff start talking to each other again (sometimes).

It’s also an excellent capacity building exercise. Interns become familiar with management procedures and more importantly the legal framework of institutional activities, staff actually have the opportunity to change – yes, change – the routine over which they procrastinate all day by suggesting and building more efficient systems to document their activity.

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