Knowledge Versus the Appearance of Knowledge

A great deal has been written about the importance of lifelong learning.  I remember in high school one of our instructors telling my class that ours would be the first generation for which lifelong learning would be a must.  No more getting a high school or college education and considering your education and training complete.

Many professions rely on certifications today to orient the participants in a profession toward a certain minimum standard way of seeing and relating to the work.  Many people in those professions look askance, to say the least, at such certifications.  I carry some of these certifications—and maintain them, and as a former training professional I understand the value of certification for setting a baseline.  However, as a senior professional in my field, I also see the limitations of the certification “racket.”  It is so easy to rack up points, whether they’re PDU’s, CEU’s, SEU’s or something else, like a score on a pinball machine.  (Yes, pinball machines are still around.)  And, easily, the education unit score can have little to do with gaining real learning.

Why is this so?  Certainly, training programs vary in quality as does our attentiveness when we attend them and our retention of the information after the fact depending on how quickly we are able to apply what we’ve learned.  Additionally, the things that education units are granted for can actually have very little professional learning value in them, especially once you’ve mastered the basics of your craft.  It’s not uncommon for education units to be granted for volunteering in the organization that grants the certification.  Volunteering can generate learning, but not all volunteering is equal.  An argument can be made that you’re giving back to the profession, but that doesn’t likely enhance your ability in wielding the technical skills governed by the certification.

Additionally, it’s very common for education units to be granted, whether you’re an accountant, a teacher, a project manager, or a Scrum Master, for attending meetings that are deemed to have educational content.  Often, attendees are highly distracted in those meetings.  Some have sign in and sign out requirements to track attendance; others have only sign in requirements and people are free to leave early.  Even though other attendees may witness this behavior and see it as poor form, the education units can be applied for and granted because there are no controls on attendance or periodic re-testing to determine whether we’ve actually retained our original grasp of the certified content let alone enhanced it with continuing education.

At the same time, certifications have become business’s last gasp attempt to hire apparently qualified staff to tackle the very real complex problems organizations face.  The intellectual and social ability of every employee will also be unique, but organizations seek certified individuals in the hope of gaining employees who are at least minimally qualified to do their jobs.  Standing on the outside of the public educational system, I can say that I prefer we have certified teachers as opposed to non-certified teachers, for instance.

Nonetheless, the fundamental question and responsibility of the professional remains firmly with the individual.  Are you learning continually?  And do you know this because you are able to successfully apply knowledge you have gained?  That’s far more important than whether you have collected the right number of education units in the time period required.  Acquiring new learning while maintaining certifications is the goal, not a casual happenstance.

Recently, for a conference I am hosting this year, I was told that networking time at the conference qualifies for professional development units in a given profession.  I was gobsmacked.  Soon we’ll be posting those units on the registration page.  I’m sure we all learn things while we’re talking with other professionals.  Whether the bulk of that time enhances a senior professional’s day-to-day grasp of their craft is another thing altogether.

Of course, every individual’s conscience is their guide as they hone their craft.  The salary they believe themselves entitled to and the level of responsibility in the organization that employs them hopefully aligns with not only their certifications but their actual competency.  But when the learning represented by credentials is more the appearance of learning than learning itself we have a situation which contributes to the degradation not only of a profession but of the society it serves.  When that profession is very influential in the society, as most certified professions are, the situation is even more serious.

I’ve known people who are afraid of real learning.  Certainly, there have been things I’ve been afraid to learn.  Not all learning is easy and learning is not easy for everyone.  We know now that, while it can seem that no individual has much influence, simultaneously relatively anonymous individuals can have a shocking amount of influence in the right place and the right time.  Professional classes of individuals can have staggering amounts of influence on the planet as we learned in the research done on the standard of behavior in the mortgage banking industry in the 2008 economic meltdown.

I encourage you to do your bit to be one of those individuals, however apparently anonymous, whose learning has prepared them to be a skilled and well-informed force for good.  We never know the day nor the hour when we may be called upon to do the right thing, CEU’s, PDU’s, and SEU’s aside.  In fact, we are called upon to do the right thing almost every day and every hour.

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