AACSB's Journey to International Certification With ISO
In order to continue to be a widely recognized and highly reputable accreditor, AACSB put our own accreditation processes through the same type of intense review, resulting in the achievement of ISO 9001 certification.
Schools in the AACSB network often hear terms such as continuous improvement and quality assurance as part of the accreditation process. These phrases are imbued in the fabric of AACSB; our schools are expected to provide evidence of continuous improvement and commitment to high quality as part of their accreditation pursuits.
For the past two years, AACSB has had the opportunity to be on the other side of the table during its own international certification process with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), to achieve ISO 9001 certification. The ISO 9001:2015 standard is aimed at helping companies meet their customers’ requirements for their product or service by requiring the organization to develop and follow a quality management system. For AACSB, this process culminated in a two-stage external audit process with the organization successfully achieving ISO 9001 for its accreditation quality management system. Suffice it to say, AACSB experienced many parallels to its own accreditation process throughout this effort!
We explore AACSB’s journey toward continuous improvement and high quality, and what it means for the organization to be ISO 9001 certified.
Why ISO Certification
To continue to be a widely recognized and highly reputable accreditor, AACSB felt it was necessary to put our own accreditation processes through the same type of intense review as we put our own schools through. We are operating in an era of intense transparency and accountability, and AACSB should be held to these same principles. In evaluating various accreditation and certification options, ISO 9001 was quickly deemed to be the right fit. With over one million companies in 170 countries certified by the ISO 9001:2015 standard, the certification met our requirements of having a global footprint. Additionally, many of the hallmarks of ISO 9001 align with those of AACSB accreditation—strong customer focus, involvement of top leadership, and an ongoing commitment to continuous improvement.
When we first embarked on this project, we had to examine all of our key accreditation processes from how we constructed peer review teams to how we trained new accreditation staff and volunteers. During this process, we realized we were doing some things really well, and other things required improvements. For example, we determined that we needed a more formalized way of controlling and managing documents such as accreditation handbooks and templates, to ensure they are routinely reviewed and kept appropriately updated. As time progressed, our team was able to develop a robust document management system, which the auditor praised us for doing exceptionally well.
Undergoing this process also made us keenly aware of the amount of time and resources that go into such a high-stakes endeavor. AACSB convened an ISO 9001 project team that consisted of 23 individuals across the areas of accreditation, IT, and human resources, and spanned all three of AACSB’s global offices. The team met weekly, and each person on the team was an integral part of the project’s success. As a result, we learned a lot about teamwork and the importance of communication across functional lines.
Challenges and Rewards
One of the most challenging parts of this process was the amount of work that had to be done. The ISO team identified and documented 12 key accreditation processes that underpinned the quality management system, and then developed an internal audit program for each process. All staff had to undergo ISO 9001 internal auditor training, conduct the internal audits, and write up reports, which included corrective action recommendations. As most individuals did not have internal audit experience, there was a steep learning curve involved.
Once we had the internal audit data, the key objective was to figure out how to use it to make improvements and appropriately document those improvements. Many readers may perceive this process to be very similar to AACSB’s assurance of learning process!
While AACSB was thrilled to earn the certification, the most rewarding part of the project was observing improvements to processes, such as how we communicate with volunteers and how IT vendors are evaluated. Further, as a result of ISO 9001, AACSB is on the way to revamping how it trains accreditation volunteers.
One of the key principles that the ISO 9001:2015 standard is built on is a strong customer focus. Adhering to ISO 9001:2015 helps ensure that customers get consistent, quality service. AACSB has always prided itself on strong customer service—our customers being our members—and we expect the certification to continue to enhance our commitment to customer service. This is evident in AACSB’s ISO 9001 Quality Policy: “AACSB, through its quality assurance process, strives to exceed service delivery expectations, providing business education accreditation of the highest quality. AACSB’s quality assurance process aims to achieve the highest levels of customer satisfaction and does so through the continual improvement of its processes, quality oriented services and fostering a culture of excellence.”
Another improvement members might observe is more regular updates to accreditation-related documentation. All documents and templates are on an update schedule, and will be updated at least once per year. The most up-to-date documentation can always be found on AACSB website at aacsb.edu/accreditation.
What Lies Ahead
The ISO 9001 certification audit is not intended to be a single event. Instead, it is a continual process designed to ensure ongoing compliance with the standard. Our certificate is valid for three years but requires a “surveillance audit” in years two and three. The surveillance audit focuses only on certain processes, at the auditor’s discretion, and is less intensive as the initial certification audit. Following year three, the organization will be required to go through a “recertification audit,” which is a complete audit. For AACSB, this will occur in late 2021.
In addition to the above timeline, AACSB will continue to conduct internal audits on each of our processes, implement corrective actions, and measure the ongoing effectiveness of our quality management system. We look forward to continuing to enhance our quality management system and delivering high-quality and impactful service to our members!
Suzanne Mintz is assistant vice president of accreditation strategy and policy at AACSB International and is based in Tampa.