Certificate Standard Presents an Opportunity for Us All

Happy New Year!  Did you set any goals for the year?  One of mine is getting back to posting regularly to this blog!  Much of the latter part of 2008 was consumed by work on getting the ASTM International Standard Practice for Certificate Programs adopted as an American National Standard (ANS)...and we're not there yet, but we are close.  It has been an amazing learning opportunity for me as I've gotten to experience first-hand the steps and processes involved in getting a standard approved as an ANS. 

Interestingly, back in 2006 I posted over at We Have Always Done It That Way

"My point is that certificates are a distinct type of credentialing program warranting their own set of quality standards." 

Little did I know how involved I would become in developing that standard!

The standard development process has presented both challenges and opportunities.  The primary challenge has been the controversy -- primarily because both ASTM and NOCA were (are) developing independent standards.  As an active member and supportive of NOCA, it has not been easy being on "the other team", but early on I made a decision about this and I still feel strongly I've made the right decision.  Another challenge has been the time devoted to the effort. As the technical lead on the standard, it's been my job to be the author/editor -- that is, to rework the draft based on all the criticisms, questions, and suggestions.  We've had three major revisions (based on the feedback obtained through the balloting process) plus for each negative vote that came in through that same process, if we (the lead subject matter experts) disagreed with it, we had to write a point-by-point rationale for ruling the comments not persuasive and put that back out to vote to the full committee.  That made for a lot of discussion and writing time!

But it's been worth the effort because more important than the challenges, the opportunities presented are significant for all of us in the education, training and credentialing community!  Also back in 2006 I wrote that for many industries it was time to rethink traditional certification.   I believe many organizations that develop certification programs would be better served through a certificate program, but previously the concept of a certificate program was fuzzy and not well known.  Now with the upcoming release of an American National Standard for certificate programs, that is about to change!  I believe we are going to see a huge growth in the development of certificate programs, as more industries and organizations become aware of the certificate program model and opportunities presented.  Certification is not and should not go away (although as I've discussed in the rethinking traditional certification post, many programs need a face-lift).  Certification meets a real need to identify and recognize qualified professionals in many industries.  Just as important, however, certificate programs offer a just-in-time model for organizations to address knowledge/skill deficits and to recognize individuals who've attained the specific knowledge/skill targeted.

There are only a handful of certificate programs (as defined by the standard, not including certificate of participation or certificate of attendance) in the association community.  It's January and a time for predictions, right?  I think we'll see an obvious growth (at least double) by the end of 2009.  If your organization has a certificate program or is developing one, let me know so I can update this blog on progress and growth.

Designations for Certificate Programs

If you are a NOCA member you just received an e-mail asking you to comment on the ASTM draft standard for certificate programs.  I believe there are a lot of misconceptions out there about the issue raised so I'd like to provide some background here that will hopefully bring some clarity to the issue. 

The ASTM draft does allow certificate issuers to grant a designation and/or associated acronym to certificate holders.  (It does not encourage it, by the way.)  I do understand why some certifying bodies do not want certificate issuers to issue a designation; it's the ideal in theory.  Unfortunately, what the ASTM Task Group has consistently heard through the stakeholder community is that if a standard forbids designations completely, then many in the community will just ignore the standard and the accreditation program (which will both be voluntary).  This means programs can continue to use any designation they like, including calling certificate holders "Certified." This gets us nowhere. 

The ASTM standard allows designations to be used, BUT NOT designations that use "Certified" or similar, confusing words.  For example, for the Institute for Organization Management, graduates use the IOM designation which really isn't confusing with certification, and that would conform with the ASTM standard.  On the other hand, if a certificate issuer issues a "Certified XYZ", that is confusing, and it would also be a non-conformity (not allowed under the standard).

Here's the actual portion of the ASTM draft standard related to this issue:

7.1.2 A certificate issuer may grant a designation or designation acronym or both to certificate holders only under the condition that the designation and/or designation acronym granted shall not include the words "certified," "certificated," "licensed," "registered," or "accredited" or in any other way imply such statuses.

NOTE 6-If a designation and/or designation acronym is granted, the following standardized format is encouraged:
Designation: Certificate Holder in (subject matter)
Designation Acronym: CH-(acronym representing the certificate designation)
Example Designation: Certificate Holder in Adult Weight Management Designation Acronym: CH-AWM

The current NOCA draft standard for certificate programs (which NOCA refers to as assessment-based certificates) prevents the use of any designations for certificate programs.  The ASTM Task Group feels strongly that preventing ALL designation use will just further splinter the industry and those with certification-implying designations will simply ignore the standard.  Allowing designations with the appropriate safeguards increases the likelihood of broad adoption of the standard while at the same time prevents the use of confusing designations.

We are very interested in your feedback on this issue.  Please post to the blog as a comment or e-mail me ([email protected]).  As always, thanks!

Update on ASTM Standard for Certificate Programs

Just a few updates on the standard for certificate programs. 

The first ballot by ASTM International on the standard for certificate programs passed!  That doesn't mean it was finalized; it means that the standard draft proceeds in development.  After the ballot closed, we worked on incorporating the feedback provided into the draft.  Thank you so much to the many of you who provided helpful feedback to make the standard even better, either as a member of the ASTM subcommittee or as an interested party.  This does bring me to something I wanted to clarify:  you do NOT need to be a member of ASTM to view and comment on the draft!!!  All you need to do is e-mail me or Rick Lake of ASTM and ask for a copy.  We welcome and encourage feedback from everyone who is impacted in any way by the standard.  As a member you can participate formally in the voting process, but all feedback submitted (from members and non-members alike) is considered in the draft revisions.  By the way, I'm thrilled to say that our interested party list has grown exponentially over the past month!!  The word is really getting out about this standard, and we're receiving much input and support, especially from the training community.   

A new and updated draft of the ASTM International standard for certificate programs is out to ballot through October 26th.  If you would like to view the current (and I encourage you to do so!!), e-mail me and I'll have the draft sent to you.

As chair of the task group charged with considering feedback and revising the standard accordingly, let me say that I am particularly interested in constructive feedback on the standard.  While it may be nice to hear kudos, I want to hear what are the potential problems with the standard.  I want to hear from those who will play devil's advocate and ask, "well, what about this...?"  or "what happens when...?"  If that describes you, please do contact me!  Only with this type of constructive criticism will this standard be the best possible. 

Why before How

I got a disturbing, but unfortunately not unusual, call last week.  An association president who read Considering Certification? Your Guide to Making the Decision called expressing the realization and concern that his organization has been focusing all their efforts on HOW to develop a certification but hadn't really thoroughly considered WHY!!! 

This happens all too often, in my opinion. Boards assume certification is wanted, needed and/or valued.  Boards assume certification will do great things for their industry or profession.  Boards assume they will make big revenue on certification.  ALL RISKY ASSUMPTIONS.  Hopefully I'll be able to help the board more thoroughly consider IF certification is a path they should pursue.  Now, someone tell me why the consultant they've been working with for months hasn't raised this "minor" question?   In fairness, the individual was hired to guide creation of a program, not to assess the feasibility for developing a program.  This begs the question, however: Isn't it the job of a consultant to ask the questions that our clients don't know to ask?

The WHY should always precede the HOW.

Designations for Certificates?

Okay, so here's hot issue number two regarding the standard for certificate programs:

Should certificate holders be issued a designation and associated acronym? 

For certification, certificants are typically granted use of a designation (e.g., Certified Association Executive) and that designation's acroynm (e.g., CAE).  Should certificate holders?

As I see it, there are 3 possible answers:  The obvious "yes" and "no" and then the more complicated third option which would allow designations and associated acroynms for certificate programs only under certain conditions, such as 1) that the organization does not state or in any way imply that the certificate holder is certified, licensed, registered, accredited, etc. and 2) that a standardized designation and associated acronym that distinguishes it as a certificate program is used (i.e., "Certificate Holder in XYZ" or "CH-XYZ"). 

NOCA's current standard draft says no designation or associated acronym. ASTM's current standard draft includes the 3rd option.

As a point of clarification, the resulting standard(s) will be voluntary so there is no way to control the many certificate programs out there that issue designations using the word "certified."  But, if a standard becomes the basis of an accreditation program for certificate programs, it would mean that all accredited programs would either 1) not be able to issue a designation (under NOCA's current draft) or 2) use only the specified standardized designation format for their certificate holders (under ASTM's current draft). 

I'm convinced "yes" is not appropriate as that further blurs the ability for users to distingish between certification and certificate programs, but I see both pros and cons of the last two options.  What do you think?

Certificate Programs: Renewable?

Here's hot issue number one regarding the ASTM International standard for certificate programs.  Please weigh in with your feedback.

Should certificates be renewable?

The current ASTM International standard draft does not allow for an issued certificate to be renewable.  The rationale is that this is a key feature distinguishing certificate programs from certification. 

According to both ANSI and NCCA standards for certification programs, a certifying agency must have renewal (or recertification) requirements as an element of their certification scheme.  Because of this, certifying bodies must have ongoing communication with and ongoing tracking of their certificant populations.

In contrast, existing certificate programs usually issue a certificate similar to a college diploma (there are exceptions).  The certificate issued indicates that certain criteria were met up to that given point in time; however, the certificate issuer does not monitor the certificate holders beyond certificate issuance.  Should they?  Do colleges have ongoing requirements for their graduates?  Do training providers have ongoing requirements for their learners?

At first glance, you may ask why shouldn't certificate issuers be allowed to have renewal requirements if they want?  To me, the problem is that it makes certificate programs too much like certification.   Right now the two are often confused and blended.  We need to distinguish between them, and I believe this is one area that can do that.

What do you think?  Agree?  Disagree?  Share why through comments or to me directly by e-mail.

FYI, NOCA's current standard draft allows for a renewal period.  ASTM's current standard draft does not.

Certificate Program Standard: Status Update

I've gotten several e-mails from readers who've joined ASTM's effort.  Excellent!!  Also received a few questions. 

Once you join ASTM, within 24 hours you will receive your online username and password.  Use this to login and view the standard online.  Let me know if you have any problems.  As I understand it, you must have been a member of the subcommittee before the ballot was released to cast an official vote at this point.  However, if the site allows you to (and I believe it will), vote anyway, especially if you have comments because we will consider ALL comments in the upcoming revision.

As far as process goes...both ASTM International and NOCA have submitted a project initiation notice to the American National Standards Institute --ANSI (the accreditor of standard setting bodies) to develop a standard for certificate programs. A governmental agency has since filed a complaint that the two standards are potentially duplicative /confusing to stakeholders. This complaint sets in motion a mandated joint effort to identify and resolve U.S. stakeholder concerns. Will the two groups ultimately unite? Will two independent standards get approved in the end? Or will one prevail. Your guess is as good as mine.

As I've suggested, the ideal is certainly to have one American National Standard.  But I'm also pretty comfortable with getting them both out there and letting the market decide which is of more value.

Standard for Certificate Programs

As I've referenced in a few earlier posts, both ASTM International and The National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA) were discussing collaboration on a standard for certificate programs.  Collaboration is now off the table and both groups are proceeding independently.  This has presented me with a professional and personal dilemma.  I'm a NOCA member, actually an active volunteer -- this year alone I'm chairing the seminars committee, serving as a reviewer for NOCA's certification handbook, I've helped formulate a knowledge strategy for the organization, and am in the process of co-designing the certification 101 and 201 workshops for the annual conference in November. I'll also be blogging the NOCA Leadership Forum on Sept. 10th.  It is not a stretch to say I am a NOCA supporter and advocate, and I will continue to be.

However, I am not in support of NOCA's standard for assessment-based certificates for several reasons. First, I believe there should be ONE national standard for certificate programs.  I believe it will be confusing to all stakeholders to have two independent American National Standards covering the same scope.  Having the two groups collaborate to develop one standard would have been the best scenario, but despite ASTM's numerous attempts at a collaborative arrangement, NOCA declined to partner, instead pursuing development of its own standard. 

Now, I should mention that years ago I encouraged NOCA to develop criteria for quality certificate programs.  My suggestion was to create a document for internal use with members to help distinguish between certification programs and certificate programs.  I still believe that education on certificate programs is very much needed in the certification community, and if the document were being created for this purpose, I would fully support it.  However, in the current situation we have U.S. stakeholders calling for standards and a third-party accreditation for certificate programs to help them distinguish quality programs from Internet sites churning out "certificates".  It is anticipated that stakeholders, including governmental agencies, will use accreditation to identify which certificates qualify personnel for its paid and volunteer workforces. 

This brings me to my second point.  I do not believe NOCA is the appropriate organization to develop a standard for certificates that will be used by U.S. governmental agencies, community colleges, associations and other non-profits, and the training community.  NOCA's core membership is made up of certifying bodies.  One of the key roles of a certificate standard is to distinguish certificate programs from certification.  I think having the standard generated from a certification professional society muddies the water.  To most, NOCA = certification.  ASTM, on the other hand, is a content-neutral third party (and a veteran setter of American National Standards) that has brought together the key stakeholders to develop the standard.

Third, I do not agree with NOCA's overall stance on certificates. A while back I had a conversation with a then NOCA board member who called certificate programs the "step-child" of certification, and said "Why would we ever want to encourage members to develop certificate programs?"  This, to me, illustrates the overall lack of understanding and appreciation of the role certificate programs can and do have.  I believe this second-class attitude towards certificate programs is so pervasive within the certification community that despite NOCA's attempt to develop a quality standard for certificates, I just don't think it can reasonably be achieved.  Too much effort is being expended on trying to ensure certificates are not "on par" with certification.  This, in my opinion, is an exercise in futility.  They are equals; each accomplishing unique purposes. Of course this second-class attitude is not an official NOCA position and it's certainly not shared by everyone; but it's a vibe clearly felt in conversations within the community.

In contrast, I attended an ASTM International meeting and immediately felt at ease with the conversation (with primarily training professionals) about what the quality attributes of a certificate program are.  The whole conversation just seemed different, upbeat, and felt right.  Following the meeting, I was asked to create the first draft of the standard document.  I agreed and had the opportunity to meet with several stakeholders in DC, including key representatives from several governmental agencies, community colleges, associations, and the training community.  The feedback I got affirmed my beliefs in what a quality certificate should be, and those are reflected in the current draft of the ASTM standard.  The current draft is only the starting point; however, and there are several key issues we must discuss to create a standard that works for all stakeholders.

If your organization plans to or currently offers certificate programs, or if you in any way would rely on a standard or accreditation program for certificate programs, I encourage you to join ASTM's subcommittee to provide feedback on the draft.  The more feedback we get, the better the standard will be. Of course, you can contact me to inquire about the standard and/or provide feedback.  And I'll be soliciting feedback on this blog over the next several weeks.  However, to have your voice and vote official, I encourage you to join the subcommittee.  It is open to everyone and you can join here.  The cost to join is $75.  Join the main committee E36 and the subcommittee E36.30.  Don't let the names of the committees distract you; these are the RIGHT committees.   

This is all my opinion and you should form your own. Perhaps follow both organization's efforts and judge for yourself which you'll support.   Having received a lot of questions, I felt I should make a public statement about why I have chosen to support ASTM International on this initiative.  While I do not support NOCA on this one particular initiative, I remain overall a supporter of and advocate for the organization.

Not a Good Reason to Certify

Every once in a while, I encounter association executives who’ve identified certification as a strategy to turn around their decreasing conference attendance.  Their logic is that a certification program with mandated continuing education will encourage individuals to go to the conferences to get that education.  BAD idea.   Remember that certification is voluntary.  Here’s a better idea: improve your conferences!


Today I am attending the Certification Networking Group's meeting on certificate programs and I thought I'd live blog a bit.  The presenters include Roy Swift from the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), Jim Kendzel from the National Organization for Competency Assurance (NOCA) and Christian Smith from Learning Resources Network (LERN).  Both ANSI & NOCA plan to offfer accreditation of certificates, so I anticipate a lot of discussion about the potential standards for accreditation.  More to follow. 

Update:  In December of 2008, Jim Kendzel indicated that NOCA is now unsure of whether they will offer accreditaiton of certificate programs.