Struggling with Certifications

The last couple of weeks, the topic of the value and risk of certifying professional practices and knowledge has been haunting me.  Perhaps this is because this coming Saturday I’m supposed to be delivering a talk on the topic at a local conference.  While I can see the value in certification, as I expressed in Knowledge Versus the Appearance of Knowledge, I’m also aware that being certified doesn’t guarantee mastery of a body of knowledge, especially an evolving body of knowledge.  Bodies of knowledge that don’t evolve are generally of very limited use.  They can even become misleading in a short period of time.

Then I think back to a project I led thirteen years ago.  The purpose of the project was to deploy and drive adoption of a distinctly new approach to spec’ing heavy trucks.  My portion of the project was to create a range of deliverables, from user guides and online help to classroom instructional materials and target recorded and live webinars to deal with problems in installation and adoption.  There were 3350 users across the US and Canada.  I hired and developed a training department including technical writers, instructional designers, classroom training delivery staff, and training logistics staff.  All of the users would need new hardware to install the application on, and all of them were to be “certified” in the use of the application to ensure that the adoption could move quickly and smoothly.  Well, we certified them, but the adoption was challenging, largely because of huge gaps in the quality assurance process driven by fear built into the environment through remarkably poor IT leadership.

I learned a lot about certification, though—how certifications are built and why.  At least initially, they can assure that everyone understands the same terms the same way and can recite and even apply certain work processes similarly, if not identically.  And, then, of course, they go back to work and to their lives—where slowly they morph the processes they learned in class and develop local ways of doing everything.  But, certification can be a powerful tool in driving adoption, as we have seen with Scrum.

Professional certifications are remarkably complex in comparison to software usage certifications.  The software is generally a more finite domain and stays more stable than, say, the practice of project management.  And trying to maintain the currency of a certification across a population practicing a profession in a wide range of contexts is a huge challenge.  There comes a point when folks start getting the certification simply as resume fodder, and then the roof caves in on the whole concept.  It doesn’t matter if you have the certification if you’re not using the information you’re certified in as your practice your profession.  Then there are the many faux certifications where initial testing and ongoing education aren’t even part of the certification process.

So much for certifications?  No, I don’t think so.  They are of limited value, but they have some value.

How we stay current in our field is up to each practitioner.  Being a professional implies certain things.  Our work is more than just a means to support ourselves.  “Profere,” “to promise” in Latin, is the root of professionalism.  The trust that is placed in us when clients or employers hire us should be regarded for what it is:  A belief that we are competent according to the standards of our professional community.  Failing to stay current in a dynamic field by seeking and acquiring real knowledge shows a disregard for that trust and perhaps a degree of utilitarianism regarding the source of our incomes that we would be scandalized to see applied to ourselves on the other end of the bargain.

As a PMP holder, I was surprised when I did a quality review of a local exam prep series this last year.  It’s been ten years since I passed that exam, and the PMBOK has changed a lot since then.  A great deal of content has been added; whole new roles have appeared.  In ten years’ time, there have been changes for both good and ill in that body of knowledge, in my opinion.  But, while I tend have my 60 PDU’s all stacked up well in advance of my renewal date, I was unaware of the changes in the body of knowledge.  There is nothing the in the re-certification model that would keep me current in the PMBOK unless I make that effort myself.

Some bodies of knowledge are more dynamic than others.  And some certifications are more orientations to the body of knowledge than demonstrations of mastery.  I think of the Certified Scrum Master (CSM) certification in this way.  The vast amount of deep theory upon which Scrum rests cannot be mastered in a three-day course.  The most you’ll get is an “aha moment” as you pick up the basic rituals in the sprint cycle, a few key principles about a shift in the approach to leadership and the notion of experimentation, adaption, and iterative and incremental delivery.  But, industry has grasped at the straw of the CSM because they seem to think it’s the best they have to indicate a successful hire. Scrum and its Agile context are still so foreign that most HR staff cannot screen for the appropriate skills, aptitudes and knowledge.

As a colleague who has a Ph.D. said to me years ago, “It’s a certified world.”  He saw his Ph.D. compare less favorably with certain certifications in the job market and was chagrined.    But, degrees, also, are criticized as being poor predictors of professional success.

What is a predictor of professional success?  Well, someone who has a voracious curiosity about the practical and ethical practice of their profession and does the regular work of learning and testing their learning through application on the job comes to mind.  You can do that with or without a certification or degree.  But, how many people do gather the amount of learning required to achieve a degree or a soundly designed and maintained certification—without actually getting a degree or certification?  Not very many.  And, that’s the point, in my mind.

All of us would like to see ourselves as exceptional.  Most of us would like to see ourselves as can-do, self-starting, smart folks who can decide what needs to be known, what is valid knowledge, and then go out there and prove to the rest of the world that we with our smart brains have got it all figured out.  This is not so easy, and such an approach smacks of an arrogance that won’t likely be helpful in the long run.

So, what to do?

I see value in both approaches:  Get the degrees and certifications, and then see to it that your education is not limited by your educators.  Consider the degrees and certifications as mere orientations to evolving bodies of knowledge.  Read.  Practice.  And engage with your peers in learning communities as often as possible.

I have colleagues who tell me that they don’t get certifications because they don’t “have to.”  Some of them are leading edge contributors in the field, so there’s some truth to what they say.  But, there’s also some arrogance there and likely a tendency to specialize in a small slice of an ever-broadening body of knowledge.  This is as dangerous and questionable as those folks who get a certification and then present that as evidence that they’ve mastered a body of knowledge.  Really, they’ve likely successfully completed a class or workshop and perhaps passed a test.

If we limit our practice to the scope of the certification, we are in deep do-do, and so are the organizations that employ us.  Because they rely on us to solve actual problems in a useful and ethical fashion, simply pulling out a book as if it were a recipe and following that recipe is likely to get us in trouble. Rather, certifications are more like master recipes.  In most cases, this recipe may get you a desirable cookie, but sometimes it’s important to add raisin or chocolate chips or nuts.  And it’s incumbent upon the practitioner to know when adding certain ingredients will be healthful or kill everyone at the picnic.

Repeatedly, the trust of organizations has been broken when they have hired people who carry a string of certifications, let alone degrees, and found that the worker could ultimately not apply in the workplace the learning supposedly represented by the certification.  That’s not the fault of the certification.  Given that the body of knowledge keeps changing and that the certification could only be seen as an introduction or orientation to the body of knowledge in the first place, it’s incumbent on all professionals to continue to learn.  If we have lost our sense of curiosity about how to do our work well, the question of whether we can do our work well emerges over time.  And, if we are not willing to do the learning in order to do better, questions around the appropriateness of charging a healthy rate or salary also arise.

This Saturday, I’ll be delivering a talk on the subject of real knowledge versus the appearance of knowledge to a room full of folks who hold or aspire to a well-known, market-viable certification.  I hope to exhort them to allow their curiosity to move them beyond the bare minimum of maintaining the certification.  I hope to see some of them add to the body of knowledge and move the profession forward.  That’s what we really need:  trail craft wise trailblazers more than lifelong rule followers.

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