Crazy About Certifications
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Crazy About Certifications by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine October 2004

I'm crazy about certifications, in both good and bad ways. My involvement with certification processes started at an early age when I entered the Scouting program. For almost ten years, I earned a wide variety of certifications as a Scout – in other words, the various ranks and merit badges. Obviously, I was motivated by this process to continue learning. Better yet, over twenty five years later, I can still remember a majority of the skills that I acquired in gaining all of these certifications. I can say the same thing for the various public speaking certifications I have gained through the Toastmasters organization. I wish could say the same about all of the work-related training that I have received during my life.

Today, it is very much in vogue both to offer certifications and to be in possession of them. For many jobs, such as those in the human resource or process improvement arenas, you now must have the appropriate certification in order to even make it past the resume screening phase of the hiring process. While I understand the logic of these requirements, I also see some flaws in both the requirements and the processes that people have to go through in order to satisfy many of them. In short, I really question whether or not people are really retaining those concepts that they are gaining certification in, let alone gaining a proficiency in using those skills. This challenge is only heightened by the significant cost that is often associated with gaining a professional certification.

In some cases, faulty certification processes can be blamed on a lack of knowledge – the people designing the processes are simply not aware of what key features a sound certification process must have in order to achieve learning goals. In other cases, it is possible that some such processes are purposely made ‘easy to get' in order to attract a lot of people to that approach, and in turn make a lot of money while the fad is still a fad. In both cases however, I feel that most of the people who are investing time and money to gain the certification really want to learn the skills – they are not just paying for a piece of paper in order to help them get an ego boost, a promotion, or a better job.

For example, I was once working with a quality group that saw a strong need for certified team facilitators – people who could help groups work together better to solve problems or otherwise help an organization improve. Unfortunately, in their zeal to meet the needs of the market, they were strongly tempted to put a certification product out on the market that resembled little more than a multiple choice test, even though being effective at facilitating skills requires a lot of practice. Fortunately, this particular product never made it off of the drawing board. There are however many certifications out there today that require little more than attaining a satisfactory test score or putting in the time, even when the skills involved are very practice intensive.

We require our teachers in the public schools to be certified as well, but do the requirements of this particular process really ensure that we have great teachers in this critical personal improvement area? I believe it is important for our teachers to be certified in some manner, but does the current approach keep great teachers on the sidelines while others who are not so great, and in some cases less motivated, occupy key instructional positions? How many engineers would be willing to help address the math and science teacher shortage in this country if that certification process was more effective?

If you would like to benchmark some other areas of questionable certification practices, just take a look at two hot topics – lean manufacturing and six sigma. In both cases if you do the research, you will find a wide variety of options to choose from in order to gain ‘official evidence' of the skills you profess to have in these areas. Additionally, if you go back in time to when only one or two such models existed in each of these areas, you will find that the certification requirements used to be much more stringent. The desire to make money has resulted in a plethora of watered down certification processes.

I can think of other similar products that are out on the market today in a variety of realms, but I won't call them out specifically here. Instead, I will simply ask a couple of questions - “What types of validation should be used to ensure that a key skill has been learned?” and “How much proficiency should be demonstrated prior to considering someone certified?” By assessing these questions as you evaluate either your own certification process, or one you might be thinking about investing in, you can avoid wasting a lot of time and money.

Another certification caution – don't assume that only those people with the official piece of paper have those skills. I, like many of my peers, have worked with teams and quality tools for many years to help a lot of companies improve, but we don't have a six sigma green belt or black belt. We can however tell many stories about team project successes and the millions in savings these successes led to. Is it reasonable to expect us to spend thousands of dollars to acquire the same piece of paper that a much less experienced person has? This caution is only amplified when we consider the potential dilution of certification requirements as a topic becomes popular. What makes a certification truly value added?

As a Baldrige Examiner, I have been able to see how different high performing organizations use certification processes to help people improve in their companies. In essentially every case, the approaches that these companies employ to help ensure that key skills are retained and applied are similar. Testing is a component of these approaches, but the testing consists of both paper tests and hands on skill demonstration. As with the scouting and public speaking certifications I earned, there is usually a requirement for at least a minimum amount of time on the job, and on most cases, demonstrated skill proficiency on that job, prior to awarding the certification.

It is interesting. The best models for skill certification have been around for years, and yet we still have people that are willing to consider someone as ‘skilled' simply because they passed a multiple choice test and did their time on the job. What happened to the need for skill demonstration? Where did we lose our desire to make sure that someone actually knew how to use an axe safely before giving them their Toting Chip? Will we ever return to using those approaches that are really effective for making sure people can use what they say they have learned, or is the prevailing approach to certification here to stay? I'm not sure I am qualified to answer those questions – I better go find someone who is certified to do so.

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