Point & Click Credentials

Posted by Sean Walters, Chief Executive Officer

Jan 19, 2021 8:00:00 PM

2020 served as a new Renaissance for learning & development. But like all periods of great expansion, there are opportunists whose efforts degrade the field, rather than improve it. This article is part 1 of three series that addresses best practices if you are developing and delivering credentialed solutions for professionals, and what to watch for if you are seeking professional development.

In many fields, professionals who hold designations are seen to be more ethical, more knowledgeable, and more worthy of your trust and business than other professionals who don’t hold a designation. When searching my PPO for a dermatologist, for example, I don’t even consider a doctor who is not Board Certified. In fact, the reasons any professional pursues a professional designation are most commonly: a) Undertake the inherently ethical act of self-improvement; b) differentiate themselves from other professionals by attaining specialized knowledge or skills; and c) Indicate to employers, peers, and customers that you hold a higher level of expertise and ethics within a field or profession.

There’s a catch. Consider I hire you because you have a designation that I find meaningful. If I find out that the designation after your name was earned without any real effort at all, or that the designation requires absolutely no ongoing standards, I might actually LOSE trust in whether you marketed your capabilities to me accurately. Just as humility combined with confidence engenders trust, false exaggeration of one’s capabilities engenders skepticism.

Undertaking a process to earn a credential can be a big step. The resulting credential you earn should be meaningful to you and to others.

Opportunity & Opportunism

Working from home provides professionals greater opportunity for self-improvement. The elimination of commutes and business travel has afforded time and money for professionals to invest in their knowledge and skills. The workplace of 2020 changed many professionals’ roles, demanding new skills and capabilities to be successful.

As a result, more professionals than ever are pursuing credentials. In 2020, the Investments & Wealth Institute, a professional association, advanced education provider, and standards body for financial advisors, consultants and planners, delivered more than 100 programs to nearly 30,000 professionals – a 40% increase over 2019.

As a non-profit organization committed to delivering premier, high quality programs and credentials, the future seems bright. However, opportunistic players have emerged, as well, offering credentialing programs without fully understanding what is required.

On the positive, providers have been pressured to deliver more tangible outcomes for learners: Digital badges, certificates and designations are all appropriate forms of credentialing, when administered using appropriate and consistent standards. Another trend, stackable pathways to certification, are in high-demand by millennial and Gen Z learners who were raised by an education system that motivated learners through step-laddering one’s way to high-level achievements. These stackable models work well for motivating learners to achieve daunting levels of competency like professional certifications.

In unregulated industries like financial services, where credibility is king, MOST of the 200+ designations that you'll see after an industry professional's name were earned as the result of completing a certificate program. They are not certification programs. The providers who created and delivered these programs allowed their program graduates to show attainment beyond simply earning a certificate of completion. Unfortunately, certificate programs masquerading as certifications can imply rigor and/or competency in a field or profession, when in actuality the credentialed professional merely completed a program of study.

Training and development professionals are receiving pressure from their employers to develop and deliver more programs in-house, which leads to a trending of internal designations.

Worse still, new business models have emerged that make attaining a designation or credentialing mark easier than ever. One new site for financial advisors allows a licensed advisor to simply peruse a menu of available designations, and click “order here” to pay a fee to earn rights to use the credential. There are now multiple job listing sites that allow users to take a series of 10-question quizzes on topics such as customer service or analytical thinking, and earn digital badges showing “proficiency” in those areas. Social media magnates have begun developing similar models.

Understanding Credentialing 101: Certification vs. Certificate Programs

Pursuing a professional certification is a significant investment in both time and money, and with the exception of certain industries, predominately in healthcare, there are no required standards to become a personnel certification provider.

The waters are mostly muddied by certificate programs masquerading as certifications. Individuals pursuing professional qualifications should be aware of the differences between a certification and a certificate program. First, here’s a quick glossary of terms:

  • Certification attests or confirms competency or standards achieved, usually within a field or profession. Certifications should objectively and consistently distinguish and qualify individuals who have successfully met all requirements for the certification, including demonstration of their ability to perform their profession or job competently. A similar process applied to an institution, program, or process is typically called “accreditation.”

  • Licensure can be thought of as mandatory certification. Under a licensure system, states define by statute the tasks and function that may be legally performed only by those who are licensed.

  • A certificate program is an educational offering that confers a document, badge, or certificate at the program’s conclusion. As opposed to competency in a profession, it shows satisfactory learning of what was taught.

  • Designations generally refer to ANY letters or marks after one’s name (i.e. John Smith, Esq.) Degrees (i.e. PhD), regulated licenses or titles (i.e. CPA), and certification marks (i.e. CIMA).

  • Credentialing generally refers to all of the above. Credentials are documented evidence of licensure, education, certification, training, experience, or other qualifications.

Below is a table describing the differences between a certification and a certificate program. Though the differences are many, the PRIMARY difference is that certifications require on-going requirements (i.e. recertification) to maintain use of certification marks.

Just because consumers want easy and fast doesn't mean that standards bodies should provide easy and fast solutions. There is certainly a larger marketplace for sugar than for spinach. If you are a provider considering the launch of an educational program that results in a designation, I would counsel you that we are spinach farmers, not cotton candy peddlers. Our role is to strengthen professionalism, not feed consumers what they want so that we can sell more product. Maintaining consistently-impartial, fair, and objective standards and procedures is part of the responsibility of administering a certification program. Our organization spent years developing, refining, and improving an objective body of knowledge and enforcing disciplinary procedures around a Code of Professional Responsibility.  It wasn't easy, nor fast, nor always profitable. Operating as a non profit certainly gave us greater permission to focus on administering standards, rather than harvesting profits.

For busy professionals, earning a rigorous and respected certification shouldn't be too easy. If it is, look twice. It is certainly easier to watch some webinars, and (maybe) take a quiz, and slap a new badge of expertise on your LinkedIn profile, or slide a new designation after your name. Certificate programs and micro-credentialing programs will become more common, and more popular. But when it comes to investing in your personal capabilities and developing your inward (and outward) sense of confidence and credibility, the longer, more challenging trail will pay more dividends in the long run.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

~Robert Frost

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