We're Certifiable! Creating a Certification Program
By Dave Lounsbury
Organizations develop certification programs when they want to create preference in the marketplace for certain types of people or technology. Certification validates the efforts of people who have invested their time and energy to learn how to implement a certain standard or best practice. And certifications are a very powerful tool for driving market adoption of a standard or skill set.
But how do organizations — including for-profit companies, nonprofit consortia and others — determine that they need a certification program in the first place? Moreover, what factors should an organization consider before putting a certification program together?
Key Considerations There are a number of considerations an organization should undertake before setting up a certification program. The chief ones are the program’s foundation, scale, legal issues, pricing and the need to anticipate problems before they appear.
• Foundation: Building a strong foundation is crucial because, by their nature, certifications are intended to alter the way people buy and sell goods and services, so a solid sense of the program’s goal must be present from the beginning. The foundation should establish the standard competence level. • Scale: When setting up a certification program, an organization should expect to interact with an entirely new set of customers and, if it’s a consortium, perform an entirely different set of services. The organization will be opening itself up to the possibility of interacting with anyone who wants to be in its marketplace, not just its existing members. Therefore, it must consider and anticipate the potential reach of its program and how far and wide it would like it to spread. The organization should consider some of the following questions: How large a program do we want to implement? How many people can we feasibly put through the process? Can we promote the certification to a larger group of people? Can we create and maintain a registry of who is certified? • Legal issues: A robust certification program will offer legal guarantees of conformance. The end goal is for the organization to minimize legal risk while establishing a program that has sufficient teeth to impact the market. It can be helpful in this arena to use a third-party consulting group, since they typically have the experience and know-how to help ensure legal compliance. • Pricing: An oft-overlooked consideration when establishing a certification program is pricing. Companies don’t want their programs to be priced too high because the certification should be as widely available as possible. Too low of a price, however, makes the program simply a rubber stamp and will not help people identify the right practices in the market — nor will it drive revenue for the organization. • A mechanism for problem solving: During the certification process, an organization can most certainly expect a problem or two to arise. It could be that a vendor or piece of equipment did not pass a test. Perhaps there’s a problem in communicating the data to the certification agency. Or it could be that there is an issue with the underlying standard that makes the certification process imprecise. In other words, anticipate problems and exceptions to the rule! It’s extremely important that organizations have a mechanism in place to handle exceptions in a timely fashion.
Using Third-Party Providers Given the above considerations, it may make financial and legal sense — as well as save time — to engage a third party to help set up your certification program. In addition to providing for a shared-cost infrastructure — whereby your organization benefits from pre-established processes used by other companies that have gone through the same experience — an independent, vendor-neutral third party also can help with planning for the evolution of the certification.
A certification must be able to stand the test of the marketplace and evolve over time. Feedback on how to evolve the program will most certainly come from the people who are implementing the standard and who work with it on a daily basis. This feedback is invaluable for growing and evolving the standard so that it continues to meet the needs of the marketplace. Organizations should plan to adapt the certification to the changing demands of the marketplace.
Methods of Certification There are numerous ways in which organizations can execute certification processes. It all depends on what they are certifying and their market objectives.
For example, when certifying people — as opposed to technologies — the best programs often use a combination of written examination and in-person evaluation. This can be preferential over using a written test as it allows for a more comprehensive assessment and also takes into account experience gained over the course of an individual’s career. On the technology side, certifying methods can range widely. A word of caution: When certifying technologies, people often get hung up on the complexity of the testing process. But it is only one component. When testing and certifying programs in the IT world, there are two salient facts to keep in mind:
1. No test has complete coverage. You can never test all of a technology’s tasks or possible interactions. The test will never tell you the complete story. 2. It is impossible to test quality at the end of a manufacturing process. Quality has to be assessed throughout the process, and the earlier you start doing quality assessments, the less expensive it will be to deploy a quality product.
Companies should incorporate testing or conformance checks as far upstream in the development process as possible. The Open Group’s Collaboration Services branch has seen numerous examples of organizations using third-party testing to validate processes at the end of the development cycle. This hinders market adoption because when there are glitches along the way, you have to go back to the drawing board to weed them out. This ultimately slows down time to market and increases product cost.
Finally, bear in mind that it is more important that people agree to conform and stand behind the certification program or standard. The strength of that guarantee is always more important than the testing itself.
Benefits of Certification The chief benefit of certification is simple: A certification program creates a preference in the marketplace for people who have taken the time to do it right. When people or organizations have invested in themselves, their skills and their experience, it pays off. For individuals in particular, becoming certified can be invaluable because it provides portable proof of their abilities.
Ultimately, developing a well-thought-out certification program helps an organization’s employees, customers and members advance the organization’s interests, as well as their own. It is arguably the best way to create confidence in the marketplace.
Dave Lounsbury is vice president of The Open Group’s Collaboration Services, which assists companies and organizations in creating and governing collaborations; guiding the development of standards; and the use of standards and best practices to impact the market and improve operations. He can be reached at email@example.com.