Retiring a Certification

Not a lot is written about why or how to retire (disband, discontinue) a certification.  Few certifying organizations have policies addressing this potential situation and without a policy, programs tend to linger on, especially when there's politics involved (and when isn't there?).

Here are the minimum components that should be included in a policy and associated procedures:

Circumstances leading to retirement consideration / decision - such as declining trends in number of applicants, number of certificants recertifying, revenue earned, value by stakeholders

Decision - who are the decision-makers and by what margin does a retirement motion get approved

Communications - to whom, how and when will the retired certification decision be communicated

Timeline - in general terms, when will the last application cycle / test administration occur (the key point here is to give sufficient notice to stakeholders)

Future Plan  - what happens to individuals already certified (must they cease using the designation at a given point in time, will they be able to maintain the credential indefinitely through ongoing recertification requirements, etc.)

If you are evaluating your certifications on a regular basis (you are, right?!), then you should readily have the data to trigger that certification retirement discussion, when warranted.

Certifying Generalists vs Specialists

Seth Godin's recent blog post has interesting implications for certification.

Says Seth: "If the world is really bigger, if you can find the best in the world to do what you want, no matter what it is you want, does that change things?

If I need an animator, I can find the world's best animator. If I need a bond to insure my movie, I can find the best broker at selling completion bonds. If I need SEO help, get me the world's best SEO person. If I need braces, I can find the best orthodontist in my area. Not the second-best or someone who will try really hard or someone who is pretty good at that and also good at other things. Sure, there are occasional tasks where a diagnostician with wide-ranging experience is important (but I'd argue that that's a specialty in and of itself).

When choice is limited, I want a generalist. When selection is difficult, a jack of all trades is just fine.  But whenever possible, please bring me a brilliant specialist.

If you're shaking your head in agreement with this obvious point, then the question is: tell me again why you're a generalist?"

And, why is it that almost all certification programs certify and recertify generalists?  That is, if recertification is by examination, that exam is a generalist exam (usually the same exam given to initial applicants).  If recertification is by continuing education, diversity of content is acceptable...and sometimes mandated. 

I don't mean to oversimplify the issue, which is a complex one.  There's the expense factor, of course, of having multiple assessments.  Then, there's the issue that if you're issuing one credential, shouldn't it have the same requirements and mean the same for everyone (which it wouldn't if you have specialist examinations or other pathways).   But I think it's something to think about.

Look at the PE (professional engineer) - here's an example of a credential that is diverse from the beginning. PEs, regardless of their specialty in civil, electrical, etc., all take specialty exams, but they all use the same credential (for licensure, btw).  I think it's an intriguing model for certifying agencies to consider.

Certification Pricing

Read something today that suggested that as a general rule, the cost of certification should not exceed one percent of the target's gross annual salary.  Anyone using that rule of thumb?   For an average gross annual salary of $25,000, a fee of $250, for $50,000 a fee of $500, and $100,000 a fee of $1000.  At face value, it seems reasonable.  Sounds like a good place to start...but of course you need to consider your costs and make sure the fee covers those. 

I had a thought of how to turn this around for promoting.  Isn't certification worth investing just 1% of your annual salary?  Seems that''s hard to argue against that, assuming  your certification offers something to be valued.

Who is the Audience?

I've noticed recently that many certification articles/books written for certification NONexperts assume a fairly sophisticated understanding of certification/testing concepts which (duh) if the individuals already had, they wouldn't be reading the piece.

Here's my current favorite written to explain the test development and scoring process for individuals certified in a healthcare profession (org name witheld to protect the "innocent"):

"The scaled scores are not a "number correct" or "percent correct" scores.  Raw Scores are arithmetically transformed into scaled scores.  This conversion involves a simple linear transformation of raw scores (x) to scale scores (s) that takes the form of Total Raw Score times zslope plus zintercept."

Yep, simple. 

The worst part is that this is literally the last sentence of the written piece.  Not exactly the note I'd like to go out on.  Check your written materials for readability (for the audience targeted - not to you!)

FAQ: Training for Certification

Once again today I received one of the most frequently asked questions from execs considering developing certification: "Can taking our courses or training programs be a requirement for certification?"

The simplistic answer is yes, but only because there are no MANDATES that certifying agencies must follow in program design.  That is, you really are free to develop a credentialing program with whatever requirements you want and you can call it whatever you want (certification, registration, certificate, etc.)  However, just because you can doesn't mean you should.  You should know the implications.

First, mandating specific courses or training programs as a requirement for certification is in violation of the existing voluntary certification industry standards (ANSI and NCCA).   You're likely aware of organizations that require their courses as part of their certification programs.  In some instances, these programs – while called certification – may, in fact, be curriculum-based certificate programs (more on this later)...or they could be a blend between the two types of program.  In other cases, organizations may either not be aware of the industry quality standards or they have chosen not to comply with them.

Second, from the legal perspective, certification-related activities that are anticompetitive, discriminatory, based on subjective standards, or implemented without fair procedures are cause for antitrust concern.  In this case, a legal concern is a tying arrangement – that you are tying the certification product to an educational product (and requiring purchase of both).  Also, there is a fairness concern in requiring everyone to participate in (and pay for) coursework – regardless of whether they may need it.

Looking at the definitions from a purist perspective, if you are developing a program that includes both training and an assessment, that's called a certificate program.  The primary distinction between certification and curriculum-based certificates is in their focus. In certification, the focus is on assessing current experience, knowledge and skills. In a certificate, the focus is on training individuals to achieve a certain knowledge and skill base and then assessing attainment of it.   The programs meet entirely different goals so you need to identify your organization's goals before you determine which program type, if any, you should create.

For more information, check out the articles at this link.

Interesting Study Tips

Here is a certification test study tip I've never seen before:

"Think like a 60 year old white man."

This is a study tip included in a document posted on an ASAE & The Center online community for CAE candidates (you need to sign in).  Let me be clear that the community and the study tips are NOT provided by or affiliated with the CAE Commission.  ASAE & The Center created the community and any member is free to post what they want.

However, it's sad that such a statement is included on a test-taking tip sheet!  And, in defense of the CAE exam, it's not at all true.  The CAE Commission is not a group of 60 YOMM, nor is the item writing group.  I've participated on both (when was a 30something white female).  So, where is this impression coming from, I wonder?  Hopefully just the opinion of the creator of the list.

But it raises an important point.  As an association/certification exec, you should continually monitor the environment and see what is being said about you and your exam - good, bad or indifferent.  Maybe there are perceptions out there you need to address.

Certification and Associated Products

I mentioned in an earlier post that many in the certification industry are still debating the appropriateness of certifying agencies selling products or services other than certification.  The certification industry standards (like NCCA and ANSI) do NOT prevent selling products or service except under certain conditions like 1) requiring a separate product purchase as part of certification or 2) accrediting the education programs leading to the certification. 

However, some individuals believe certifying agencies should not sell education-related products and some believe they should not sell anything other than certification.  I don't get it.  If a product supports you in accomplishing your mission and goals, why shouldn't you sell it?  As an example, if your mission is public protection, why shouldn't you offer self-assessments to help your certificants indentify their learning needs?  Why shouldn't you offer an online searchable database of industry learning activities?  Why shouldn't you offer certificate programs in targeted areas where skills are lacking?  Aren't these products helping your cause? 

The usual argument is that it's a conflict of interest.  I don't see it.  Certainly, conflict can occur...if there is a professional association that also creates (or desires to create) these products.  But that's a competition (and political and turf) issue, not a conflict of interest.

So far I haven't heard a compelling argument for this "certification as the sole product" belief.  What do you think?

Do you need a hammer?

At the recent ASAE & The Center Great Ideas Conference, an attendee that I had just met asked me an interesting question; he said, "I've read a lot of your writings lately, and I can't tell so I was wondering....are you an advocate of certification or not?"

This shocked me initially because I guess I'd always thought of myself as a certification advocate, I'm a certification consultant for goodness sake.  But then clarity hit and I realized how many organizations have chosen to develop programs other than certification based on my counsel.  My response to him:  If certification is really right for the field, then I'm an advocate.  If it's not, then I'm not.  We proceeded to have a discussion about his certification program and the reasons certification may or may not be right for an organization, and what alternatives there are.  Then I asked him, "If you had NOT developed a certification program, would your field look any different than it does today."  A little sheepishly, he said no, was silent for a minute and then said, "I wish I'd have met you four years ago."  You see, there was a certification consultant who helped him build a  psychometrically sound and legally defensible program - unfortunately it's not really needed by the market.

So, here's my plea.  If you are considering developing a certification program, do NOT send out an RFP to certification consultants and/or testing agencies asking them to help you build it.  Why?  Because they just might help you build a really expensive program that has no impact!   Invest the time and resources to determine if certification would make the impact you  desire.  You might be surprised to find certification isn't the answer (or maybe it is).  There's a big toolbox out there -- certification, certificates, accreditation, awards, member classification systems, professional development, among many others.  Figure out what you're trying to build BEFORE you invest in one tool.  And if advisors are only selling one tool (usually certification), take great pause before signing that contract.    I don't believe anyone would intentionally try to sell you a program you don't need.  It's just that, if all you're selling is a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail.

Note:  many of the writings my colleague was referring to are included in the book and blog of the same name: We Have Always Done It That Way:  101 Things About Associations We Must Change.

Next Generation Credentialing

In case you didn't see it, Shannon Carter and I published an article on Next Generation Credentialing in the June Associations Now magazine.  Also, I'll be taking a concept touched on in the article - purpose-driven certification products and services - to the next level at a presentation at the 2007 NOCA conference:  Exploring New Frontiers in Credentialing, November 14 - 17, 2007 in San Antonio, TX.  There's no conference web page yet, but I'll post it when available.  Hope to see you there!