When a Certification Program Is Appropriate
There are certain characteristics of a business problem and target audience that make a certification program a viable alternative to a traditional training curriculum. These characteristics apply to most adults, making it easy to use this approach in many cases. Some of these characteristics are:
- The topic is mission-critical for the organization or the health of the public, or employees or corporate liability are at risk.
- The topic is considered important enough to impose the psychological pressure on the target audience that comes with the term “certification exam.” For example, safety or regulatory compliance needs may make it worth the stress you will impose.
- The target audience is capable of independent self-study or group study.
- The target audience is emotionally able to handle being tested and judged.
- The topic lends itself to independent self-study or group study, not necessarily led by a facilitator.
- All members of the target audience must meet minimum performance standards to be considered competent.
- Proficiency in the topic can be measured in some way (written questions, oral boards, simulation, demonstrating proficiency in front of an evaluator, etc.).
- There is a consequence for either passing the exam (i.e., a carrot) or failing to pass the exam (i.e., a stick).
If all these characteristics are met, a certification program may be an appropriate alternative to a traditional curriculum.
In some special cases, such as software vendors, a certification program may also be used as a method to draw students to your training classes, keep up with your competition or give your product prestige. For example, we worked with one e-business software vendor to develop a certification program to be used in conjunction with its training classes. Certification followed tracks similar to the classes offered. Gaining certification was advantageous to learners in that it could help them land a great job with a company producing cutting-edge software. For the e-business software vendor, offering a certification program was a way to add prestige to the company’s products.
Setting the Scene
Let’s take a look at an example. This is based on an actual situation at a large global semiconductor company.
Suppose your management has identified a need to enhance the skills of the 100 engineers in a particular division of your semiconductor company. The typical response is to get down to work developing an engineering learning curriculum and then start buying or building the courseware. But wait. Is that really the most effective approach? Will sending your engineers to class enhance the skills you want them to learn, or will it just look good on their resumes? Will the time you invest in creating hundreds of pages of manuals or e-learning modules have the payback you desire? And more importantly, do you even have training developers on staff with the skills and knowledge necessary to raise the skill levels of a highly trained audience like engineers? If so, why aren’t these people out mentoring instead of writing training manuals? And how are you going to deal with the diversity of skill levels going into the classes?
The true goal is to increase the skills of the engineers. You want to be able to show management that their skills have been enhanced. You want the engineers to invest themselves in the process of enhancing their skills. While you are at it, if you could find a way to leverage an engineer’s inherent ability to learn independently, that would be great. The goal should not be 80 hours in the classroom over the next year, but rather to demonstrate a minimum set of skills and knowledge as evidenced by performance improvement on the job and as validated by a certification exam.
Certainly, some engineers will need to take or review some courseware or other materials. But because the curriculum can be made up of self-study materials, this can include:
- Books that have already been published.
- Materials that your company has already created, such as specification documents for the materials or products.
- Detailed procedure documents or industry regulations or standards.
- Training materials you’ve created previously.
- Third-party training that people can sign up for.
- New courses developed specifically to support certification preparation.
All in all, this approach is faster and cheaper, and it gives students more flexibility, as they can pass out of the topics that would bore them to tears if they already had proficiency.
You are probably thinking that this will never work. If you announce to the engineers that they will all have to pass a test, there are going to be problems. You’re right. If that’s all you do, there will be problems. Just as standardized certification exams like the CPA exam and the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) exams have prep courses and sample exams, you will need to provide support materials and study outlines in our scenario. But developing good study outlines, case studies and exams will be less work for the training department than having to develop or purchase and administer a full-scale engineering curriculum.
Table 1 summarizes the high-level differences between a certification program and a traditional training curriculum.
Range of Choices in a Certification Program
Most readers will have a good idea of the kind of work that goes into developing a traditional course or curriculum. What are the considerations necessary for a certification program? Just as in a traditional course, you have choices. A few of these choices are:
- High-tech methods (electronically administered exams) or low-tech methods (paper and pencil).
- Highly objective measures (such as multiple-choice questions) or more subjective measures (like oral boards or demonstrating proficiency in front of an evaluator). We have seen the demonstration method used very effectively at a heavy equipment manufacturer that requires learners to re-assemble a large engine as part of their certification.
- Exams delivered electronically (such as online exams or simulations) or those that require human intervention (like a proctored exam or demonstrating proficiency in front of an evaluator).
- Mandatory certifications (like a mortician’s license) or voluntary certifications (like the MCSE). You can make a certification mandatory for certain positions in your organization if needed.
- Test items that test knowledge (memory), skills (how-to), problem-solving (scenario-based) or demonstration.
As you can see, the choices made in planning the certification program will have a big impact on the final form and effectiveness of the program. These choices will determine how well the program will achieve the business goals that were the original impetus for the certification program.
Considerations for a Certification Program
The list below includes items that must be addressed in the design of a certification program.
- Test method (written questions, oral interviews, demonstration of skills, scenarios or a combination of these).
- Test structure (multi-part tests, trees of specialized related tests, a single test).
- Certification designation (all or nothing, certification with specialization, partial certification).
- Test item standards (types of questions, level of difficulty, etc.).
- Scoring mechanism.
- Delivery mechanism.
- Exam maintenance.
- Source of learning objectives.
- Duration of certification and renewal standards. (Will it last one year or indefinitely?)
- Tracking of certification results.
- Consequences of not passing (retakes, etc.).
- Benefits of passing (prizes, logos, etc.).
- Study support mechanisms (study outlines, sample exams, discussion groups, classes, etc.).
All of these considerations must be addressed and documented in a certification program plan. These items can be addressed in a certification program brochure. Using the brochure approach results in a compact, concise description of the essential components, rules and criteria for the exam.
Study Support Mechanisms
Especially for a certification specific to your organization, you will need to provide study outlines, sample tests or other study support mechanisms to allow learners to prepare for the exam. Study support mechanisms may take many forms, including:
- Study outlines (including a syllabus of recommended reading materials).
- Sample exams.
- Discussion groups (either live or online).
- Training classes. (You may already provide a class in a portion of the topic.)
- Access to experts.
- Access to supporting materials and documents.
- Access to training materials written or used previously, if they exist.
- Access to an online library of white papers and other items, if you already have capability in-house.
Well-structured study outlines will allow you to leverage existing reference materials, promotional materials, publicly available materials and other resources. If the information already exists, it is most advantageous to the learner to learn how to access it. There are three benefits to this approach:
- It encourages your workers to use tools already at their disposal to get information. They actually begin using their reference tools and resources effectively. Preparing for the exam is a crash course in how to use these materials.
- It is less work for the training department to organize the list of resources and create an exam than to develop a full-blown set of courseware. And the training department still gets to leverage existing training work, as we saw when we constructed courseware to support a certification exam for the sales force at a large heavy equipment manufacturer.
- Individual learners can attack the content using their own preferred style. Some learners may learn best by reading. Some may prefer working in discussion groups. Some may prefer solving problems for themselves. A well-structured study outline can support all of these styles.
Advantages of Sample Exams
Exam drills can help some learners identify knowledge gaps and skill weaknesses to be corrected before taking the real exam. The learner directs this for himself. The result is a revelation of the targeted areas needing improvement for that individual. This is an advantage over course-based instruction. Only courses with strong pre- and post-testing reveal specific knowledge or skill gaps as effectively as a sample test can.
To allow for adequate preparation by the learners, you will need to provide a sample exam in most cases. For a written exam, you will need to construct an extra collection of questions at about the same level of difficulty as the real pool of questions. For an oral exam, you will need to construct a list of sample interview questions that are similar but not identical to the questions that will be asked by the judging committee. For a scenario-based or problem-solving exam, you will need to construct a case study or scenario that is similar but not identical to the one learners will be asked to solve in the final exam. If you determine that the exam will include 100 multiple-choice questions, you will have to write several times that many questions for the question pool and the practice exams. In addition, you may want to consider an application or rules that you will use to randomize the exam questions and the schedule you will use to write new questions to add to the pool.
Don’t underestimate this need for lots of questions. But also, know your options for purchasing and re-using existing questions. For example, we did work for a large technology publishing company to take a purchased database of retired MCSE questions and map them to existing course content in the publishing company’s catalog. With 3,000 retired questions mixed into course content, the certification prep courseware became much more valuable to students.
This is only a brief overview of how a certification program may be used in place of a traditional curriculum. In practice, laying out the strategy for and implementing a good certification program will take time, although probably not as much time as a traditional curriculum that covers the same material. In cases where the topic is mission-critical for the organization, the health of the public or employees is at risk or corporate liability is at risk, certification exams may be a viable alternative to a traditional training curriculum. There is a wide range of choices in designing and implementing a certification program, making it a flexible and customizable option for many situations, and one that should be added to your training arsenal.
Amy Corrigan is a principal for Technology Solutions Company (TSC) with more than 16 years of experience with highly technical computer systems. At TSC she has served as a project leader for many engagements, including certification program development and e-learning support and guidance.
Eve Drinis is a vice president for TSC. She is currently responsible for managing training and e-learning projects in the western United States. She is a key resource for conducting training, e-learning and organizational readiness assessments, developing successful deployment strategies for TSC clients.
Table 1: Comparing Certification and a Traditional Curriculum
· Job needs analysis (to develop objectives)
· Job needs analysis (to develop objectives)
· Course outlines
· Training material guidelines
· Training delivery mechanisms
· Training tracking
· Preliminary course logistics and travel budget
· Exam structure
· Preliminary exam delivery mechanism
· Study support mechanisms
· Supporting materials/ reference materials identified
· Directed by instructor
· Self-directed by learner
· Hours of training attended
· Perhaps, passing post-test
· Exam scores
· Changing a three-day course may take one to two months’ advance notice
· Changing an equivalent set of exam questions and study outlines may take one to two weeks
Course materials to produce
· Instructor manuals
· Student manuals
· Quick reference guides
· Exercise guides
· Pre-tests and post-tests
· Course catalog and training schedules
· Exams (several)
· Study outlines
· Certification program brochure
· List of supporting documents and reading material (syllabus)
Significant cost items
· Developing large manuals
· Developing exercises
· Developing post-tests
· Facility costs to hold classes
· Travel expense for students
· Administration and tracking of training classes
· Developing exams
· Developing study outlines
· Graders for exams
· Discussion board or e-mail discussion list for learners
· Administration and tracking of scores
· Bonding that happens between students in a classroom situation
· Bonding/mentoring that occurs as engineers prepare for exams
· Fraternal feeling that develops among those able to pass the certification
· Pride/prestige in passing the exam
· Positive competition that drives others to become certified
· Certificate for attending a certain number of hours of training
· Bragging rights to having achieved a proficiency in a topic – certification label
May 2003 Table of Contents