The Diffusion Of Quality Certification.

Organizational practices tend to diffuse unevenly throughout the world. Using comparative case studies of a small number of countries, researchers have found that national institutions shape processes of diffusion above and beyond the technical characteristics or efficiency of the practice (Cole, 1985, 1989; Gooderham, Nordhaug, and Ringdal, 1999; Guillen, 1994a; Orru, Biggart, and Hamilton, 1991). These differences in the rates of international diffusion of organizational practices have not been conceptually and empirically examined for a sufficiently large number of countries in order to understand the drivers of diffusion on a truly global scale.

The question of how practices travel from one organization or social setting to another has already been of interest to a variety of fields in the social sciences, the life sciences, and engineering (see Rogers, 1995 for a review) and, with the intensification of globalization has become even more urgent to answer (Guillen, 2001; Meyer, Boli, and Ramirez, 1997). Some researchers have focused on the technical merits of the practice or innovation in accounting for diffusion (e.g., Mansfield, 1961; Williamson, 1970; Davies, 1979), while others have examined the existence of institutional effects on the diffusion of practices in single industries, fields, sectors, or countries, usually the United States (e.g., Baron, Dobbin, and Jennings, 1986; Galaskiewicz and Wasserman, 1989; Davis, 1991; Galaskiewicz and Burt, 1991; Haunschild, 1993; Haveman, 1993; Davis and Greve, 1997). This line of research has established that practices spread from one organization to another following a process of institutionalization dri ven by resource dependence, social comparison, or network ties linking potential adopters, but most work has not focused on diffusion to different organizations across countries.

Previous research has paid attention to the effects of national institutions and forces on the process of diffusion of certain organizational practices within countries (e.g., Kieser, 1989; Barley and Kunda, 1992; Lazerson, 1995; Abrahamson and Fairchild, 1999). But neoinstitutional theorists have explicitly argued that isomorphism occurs at the country level of analysis as well as at the level of the organizational field or the industry (Jepperson and Meyer, 1991; Orru, Biggart, and Hamilton, 1991; Rosenzweig and Singh, 1991; Kostova, 1999). A few researchers have more specifically considered the institutional factors that shape the cross-national diffusion of practices, focusing on state structures, professionalization, and culture as explanations (e.g., Guillen, 1994a, 1997; Meyer et al., 1997; Westney, 1987).

Most empirical research on cross-national diffusion falls under two rather restrictive categories. The first comprises comparative studies based on a limited number of countries, including Cole's (1985, 1989) analysis of the diffusion of small-group activities in Japan, Sweden, and the United States; Gooderham, Nordhaug, and Ringdal's (1999) comparison of the adoption of human resource management practices by firms in six European countries; and Casper and Hancke's (1999) study of the implementation of quality management practices by automobile firms in France and Germany. The second category of empirical research on cross-national diffusion includes studies based on evidence drawn from a large number of countries, but dealing with practices adopted by governments or nation-states as opposed to by organizations or firms. For instance, cross-national processes of institutional isomorphism have been empirically documented in the cases of the spread of oil nationalizations (Kobrin, 1985), decolonization (Strang, 1990), currency crises (Glick and Rose, 1999), and policies to protect the environment (Frank, Hironaka, and Schofer, 2000). The empirical literature does not contain analyses of diffusion of an organizational practice among firms located in a large number of countries, even though such diffusion is likely to be a powerful force in a globalized economy. Moreover, the literature on cross-national diffusion has made very limited progress in terms of specifying the institutional mechanisms that facilitate or impede acceptance of a given organizational practice internationally. In this paper, we fill this gap as we identify, conceptualize, measure, and test the effects of the institutional forces that produce isomorphic behavior among firms located in different countries. We provide the first empirical test of the cross-national diffusion of an organizational practice (ISO 9000 quality certification) based on 85 countries over a six-year period.


Quality certification has emerged as a key organizational practice helping companies worldwide establish rationalized production processes. As such, it provides an appropriate empirical setting for the study of the cross-national diffusion of organizational practices. The most influential and pervasive quality practice in the world is associated with the 9000 family of certificates sponsored by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), based in Geneva, Switzerland. ISO's goal is to "promote the development of standardization and related activities in the world with a view to facilitating international exchange of goods and services, and to developing cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity" (ISO, 2001a). To understand the diffusion of ISO standards, some background information is necessary.

The ISO 9000 standards were developed by Technical Committee ISO/TC 176, which comprises experts from business and other organizations around the world (ISO, 1998). The first ISO 9000 certificates, attesting that firms were adhering to standards, were issued in 1987 (ISO, 2001 b). By the end of 1999, more than 400,000 ISO certificates had been issued to firms in 158 different countries and territories, up from 27,000 certificates in 48 countries in 1993. Having originated in Europe, the ISO standards first diffused among firms in the member countries of the European Union (EU), with the United Kingdom in particular playing an important role in this development and diffusion. The ISO 9000 standards were initially based on the BS5750 series of quality assurance system standards developed by the British Standards Institution (851) in 1979 (Peach, 1997). When the first ISO 9000 certificates were issued in 1987. there were already about 6,000 B55750 certificates in Britain (Abdul-Aziz, Chan, and Metcalfe, 2000). W ith the support of the British government, BSI played an active role in increasing ISO 9001 certification in many countries around the world, an increase that was further reinforced when the EU recognized ISO 9000 certificates as part of its harmonization effort (Peach, 1997; Anderson, Daly, and Johnson, 1999). In recent years, certification has gradually diffused to other countries in the world. While European certificates comprised 83 percent of all certificates in the world in 1995, the proportion had come down to 54 percent by 2000 (ISO, 2001 b). Moreover, while the early certificates were mostly issued to manufacturing firms, the standards have diffused in many other areas, including service sectors, such as information technology, education, and health and social work (ISO, 2001b).

ISO 9001 norms were developed as a set of international standards and guidelines that serve as the basis for establishing quality management systems at manufacturing and service firms (150, 1998). Certification is voluntary and is undertaken by various certification bodies called "registrars." Registrars include government laboratories, private testing organizations, firms that were early adopters of ISO, industry trade groups, and accounting firms (Anderson, Daly, and Johnson, 1999). Registrars, in turn, are qualified to conduct audits and award certificates by national accrediting agencies, which typically are the national standards body in each country.

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