Three Current Themes in Professional Certification Programs

Posted by Joseph Sapp on January 16, 2013 7:59:19 AM

At a recent certification development meeting conducted for a TMG client, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the client’s testing agency, comparing notes on the current landscape for non-licensure certification programs. A few common themes emerged, namely internationalization, building ancillary products, and developing new certifications that leverage and trade on existing certifications. While in the most generic terms these are the familiar worries of relevance and sustainable growth, there are some specific things association leaders should consider.

As Tom Friedman reminds us, we’re all international organizations now, even if we don’t see it or embrace it. Trade and professional societies are still appending “International” to their names at a rapid clip, and wrestling — hopefully in advance — with everything that comes with that at the strategic and operational levels. Becoming an international association or society is challenging, and taking a certification international is another animal altogether and beyond the scope of one single blog post. But for those thinking about going international with a certification, there are a few critical considerations.

First, consider whether you can take your certification global. Meaning, does it even make sense outside its home country? To answer this, carefully analyze the profession globally. Is your current body of knowledge globally applicable? Are there significant consistencies in business practices, knowledge and skills around the world? Or does does your certification only embody business practices and professional roles in its home country? For example, your certification can be impeccably relevant in the United States and still not hit the mark in other regions where it seems literally and figuratively foreign. It might be a good time to conduct a new job analysis and update your body of knowledge using an international set of subject matter experts., with a thorough validation study This process will require that you grapple with regional variations in practices, and may cause you to ask what trying to internationalize might mean for your body of knowledge. To achieve a BOK that’s relevant around the world what trade-offs do you have to make? Does it become too generalized and watered down? Does it become so regionally conditional that it’s unmanageable? Where’s the optimal balance between the two?

Second, consider the geographic distribution of your membership base, or where the profession is most active. Attitudes toward certification and professional credentials vary regionally. Some regions and cultures embrace the value of validating professional competencies through neutral third party certification, and others are downright skeptical. Depending on where you need to target your program, you could have a perfectly valid certification and still find a very challenging environment.

Third, take time to consider the effect on your core market, and what happens to your historical base as the certification evolves. Can you bring everyone along with you?

Ancillary Products
This common theme centers around development of ancillary products and new ways to further monetize existing certifications. These programs are to certifications as non-dues revenue streams are to membership. Here the concerns are mainly product viability, risk, and development, given limited resources. While in some ways limited only by creativity and resources, thoughtful certifying bodies carefully weigh the types ancillary of products they introduce and the pace at which they’re put into the marketplace. Negative perceptions of over-commercialization are a risk in some instances. Further, some types of products and services can hinder current or future plans to obtain accreditation for the certification. Obviously these programs should be driven by a larger strategy over pure opportunity.

New Certifications that Leverage Existing Certifications
In addition to building revenue around the edges of existing certifications, many professional societies are also looking at opportunities to create new certifications, whether by going deeper into specialized areas of professional practice or developing one or more certifications that address different career phases or levels of seniority. The latter approach generally follows an established career model and can be beneficial by creating a continuous product line that starts with a point-of-entry credential and offers designees something to move on to when they begin to feel their current certification is losing relevance or doesn’t reflect where they are or want to be professionally. These linked certification programs can be critical in strategic initiatives to advance and elevate a profession. But given the time needed to develop and grow a certification program, you must have a reliable long-term view of where the profession is headed and the internal and external forces shaping that direction.

When looking at specialized niches, organizations might want to be cautious around topical issues and emerging practices. They’re tempting, but are they a passing fad or a temporary issue, or do they mark a permanent change in the profession? Do they herald the emergence of a new specialized type of professional or are they instead knowledge and skills that will eventually become generalized through a mainstreaming process? Depending on the answer to these questions the area may be better suited to a certificate program than a certification.

How are you tackling these three big themes for certification programs? What other growth opportunities are you exploring? What’s missing from your plan?

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