Building a Certification Program, Step 10: Managing your certification program (Part 1)
NOTE: This is a 10-part series. To view all articles in the series, click here.
To those who have followed us throughout this long and winding trek, we have finally reached the top of the mountain. Yet I am here to report that, despite the relief we may all be feeling, there is still a lot of work that we must do. This is not a trek where we get to sit back and admire the scenery. This is the step where your real job begins.
No matter what your title is — whether your business card says VP of Certification, Director of Certification and Assessments, Manager of Certification, or simply Program Manager of Certification — if you have somehow been blessed with responsibilities of making certification a priority for your organization, then this step will help you do your job.
In this installment we will look at a few of the key processes involved in managing a successful certification program that you have had a hand in designing and developing.
“Mulkey and Naughton (2005) present three key decision points businesses should identify and address when considering launching a certification program. The points they present are (a) the purpose or business driver behind certification; (b) the problem that will be addressed; and (c) the bottom-line contribution, if any, that certification will provide. In short, the question of why launch a certification program must be considered. They feel these decision points are core considerations and must be tackled before moving forward with a certification and assessment program.
In their research, Barksdale and Lund (1998) have similar findings in that a key decision point is the elucidation of the business goals for certification. According to their research, organizations with unclear business goals, and who have not clearly defined their target audience, have certification programs that frequently fail.
They expand on these findings with a list of key elements used when evaluating a certification program’s success. These elements consist of obtaining clarity about(a) business drivers, (b) business needs, and (c) business values.” (Wyrostek, 2011)
As we noted under Step 8 that this program is not necessarily a linear process. It is safe to assume that many of the issues unique to this step are decided from the outset. Some of these issues include:
1. Who will administer the certification? Who will be the face of certification for your organization?
2. What will be the starting date for those wishing to be certified?
a) When do you have to complete the certification?
b) Is there an end date that your leadership requires?
3. What policies does your organization have for certification?
a) Will you have a Governance oversite committee? If yes, who will be on it and how often will it convene? Do you have the Senior Management support needed for success?
b) What is your policy if someone must recertify?
c) Will the certification be for consultants, customers only, employees only, or some combination? What do you charge for each attempt?
d) How many times can a person retake the exam and in what time frame? Can a person test out/bypass any of the exams?
e) What is your policy on cheating and on exam security?
f) How will you deal with any lessons learned?
4. Will you draft a program charter? If yes, what will it contain?
5. Will you draft a full program plan for managing the program? If so, what will it cover?
Now that we know what the key questions are, it is time to explore each question in depth.
1) Who will administer the certification? Who will be the face of certification for your organization?
This can be a tough question if you are just formulating a wish list. Often you will have little or no input into the final selection, but if you are vying for the position of head person in charge of certification and assessment here is what I would look for.
I would find a professional who is both passionate about the certification concept and space within industry, but also someone who has several vendor-authorized certifications that will demonstrate that he or she has an appreciation for what it takes to earn a high-level certification.
Let’s run through some bullet points. You want to find a professional who:
● Provides strategic and tactical leadership for the organization’s certification product lines. The Program Manager will align the organization’s product portfolio with the certification business plan. This individual partners with leadership to identify, recommend, develop, implement and support the strategic vision and direction of the organization, for both current and future business needs.
● Owns the certification lifecycle from exam development, administration, to re-certification by serving as the certification program subject matter expert.
● Identifies and proposes strategies to both increase and communicate the value of the organization’s certifications to industry professionals and stakeholders.
● Manages day to day operations and delivers regular reports to leadership.
● Manages the LMS which serves as the system of record for all certification programs.
● Upgrades and implements an appropriate system of policies, internal controls and procedures.
● Has experience within the relevant industry
● Is familiar with ISO standard 17024:2012: Conformity assessment – General requirements for bodies operating certification of persons. This is an international standard which specifies criteria for the operation of a certification body for persons. The standard includes requirements for the development and maintenance of the certification scheme for persons upon which the certification is based.
● Has 3 to 5 years’ experience administering and managing a certification program in a pencil and paper, or computer-based testing environment.
● Has experience with exam development principles, and practices.
● Is highly organized and gives proficient attention to detail skills.
● Has superior communication skills.
● Has an excellent problem-solving ability.
● Has expert-level skills with Microsoft office.
● Has proven experience prioritizing and balancing multiple, on-going high-profile projects.
● Self-motivated and can work with little supervision.
● Has negotiating, networking and relationship-building skills, and can work well with remote teams.
● Has excellent program management skills.
While there are no permanent staff supervisory responsibilities, this individual influences, coaches, and mentors those within the department to help achieve department and organizational goals.
If you have these qualities and or characteristics, then you would be an outstanding face for certification for a quality organization. As I see it, to get the job as a certification program manager you need to be open, honest and consistent with your leadership, your sponsors, your candidates, and most of all yourself.
Now that we have defined what hiring personnel should be looking for in the individual chosen to manage a certification program, the next hurdle to jump is to define how long it takes for a candidate to certify on a new product.
2) What will be the starting date for those wishing to be certified?
2-a) When do you have to complete the certification?
2-b) Is there an end date that your leadership requires?
This is an individually-decided issue that every leadership group I have ever worked for always gave me fits on. The reason is quite simple: If you know when you need your folks certified, then you can backdate the schedule to figure how long your training will take to present, and how much time it will take to test your teams.
Say you have a new product being released on April 7. Then the hope is that everyone who is a key player on the rollout or deployment teams would be certified at or around March 31. Otherwise, you can run into a situation like I once faced, where I had 29 teams that had to be ready to go on March 31, which included everyone from technical engineers to program managers to nurses and physicians.
The main caveat for me was always that not everyone could be trained at the same time, plus this organization did not believe in giving these professionals time off to train, to study, or to test. This put a huge strain on the workforce because the leadership had expressed unrealistic expectations.
In order to get everyone into a class for the classes they needed, we opted to get folks trained starting in early October, on early software releases, to ramp up the staff on the new features and functions early in the release process. This way, as the final software was released in mid-February, the learning curve would not be as steep for any of the roles.
Ideally, my plan has always been to plan out the certification for eight months, from May through December, and begin a formal rollout of the certification testing process from January 1 to April 30. Even in the scenario I just painted, we were able to accomplish this goal with a lot of management support. Leadership and management received a lot of positive feedback from customers as the certified teams rolled out.
Now we must look at the policies required to manage a successful certification program.
3) What policies does your organization have for certification?
3-a) Will you have a Governance oversite committee? If yes, who will be on it and how often will it convene? Do you have the Senior Management support needed for success?
When I finally got the opportunity to manage my own certification program, the first thing I requested was the names of the directors, managers and VPs who could give me some insight on what was needed and how they saw the program moving the business ahead. Once I finished the weeks of phone calls, I put the plan together for our leadership.
My first order of business was to get all of the managers, directors, and VPs that I had had individual discussions with to agree to be on a call for one hour per week at a minimum to serve as a Governance Oversight Committee. Basically, they would be my eyes and ears in the field, and provide me with timely feedback on what we were doing.
Without a doubt this group of leaders were the reason my programs were successful. A big part of the reason I advocated so hard, early on, for this committee was the following quote I had read sometime back by Tracey Flynn:
“Tracey Flynn in her GoCertify interview (“Interview: Tracey Flynn” n.d.) argues that the biggest mistake an organization can make when planning a certification program is to underestimate the amount of senior management support needed for success. According to Flynn, because of the resource demands required for success, members of management must be engaged in the process and agree on all steps involved, including the assessment development processes.” (Wyrostek, 2011, p.3)
3-b) What is your policy if someone must recertify?
If you have certified folks, then you must have some way for them to recertify. Will it simply be by means of an upgrade test or will you and your organization require that these veterans of your certification program do all the training again, and retest on all the options again, like they were a new employee?
If we look at some of the standard certification paths that have been out for a while, then you will notice that some credentials don’t have a recertification policy: Once certified you are certified for life. Other programs minimally require you to have a number of CEUs earned every 2-3 years, and a few require that everyone who wants to be certified on the new platform has to sit every new course and test required of even the novice.
Whatever your policy turns out to be, my best suggestion is that you document it clearly and make sure your governance steering committee is on board and is willing to communicate the details to future candidates. If they are good with the policy, then you are golden; if not, then make any needed changes so that you will be golden.
3-c) Will the certification be for Consultants, Customers only, Employees only, or some combination? What do you charge for each attempt?
This question addresses the quandary every program manager faces initially, namely: Who is the target population for your certification? Initially, if you were like me, then you jumped into the deep end and said all of the above. But then after you regained your mind and realized what you had to do for each demographic, you decided to do one group at a time.
Which one would be first is always a tough call? Initially, the organization I worked with wanted me to focus on the customers, because that would give us the biggest ROI. But then two of the senior leaders came to me and told me to focus on the employees to boost customer satisfaction scores. That is what I did, and the results were tremendous.
After the employees, we were going to begin targeting a select group of clients like a beta run. Unfortunately, that opportunity closed before I could get the customer side relaunched. But in certifying the employees, I built up a lot of goodwill with the various employees as well as with the leadership.
Some groups I have worked with have a workforce that was primarily made up of consultants who required certification. The only real difference between the employee certification program and the consultant certification program was the fee charged per test attempt.
In the consultant certification program, the candidates were each charged $150 per attempt, while the employees were not charged to take their exams. The $150-per-attempt standard would have been the fee charged per test attempt for the customers also. Now, despite the anger I can hear in some of your voices, I never thought of $150 as out-of-bounds even for tests I took over 25 years ago. In 2019, $150 per test is almost as good as free with, vendor tests starting in the $225+ range.
3-d) How many times can a person retake the exam and in what time frame? Can a person test out/bypass any of the exams?
A lot of this will depend on who your target audience is, which we just discussed. If you are targeting your employees, then how many times and what time frame will often be dictated by the human resources policies and procedures that are in place. If you are fortunate enough to be able to write your own policy, then what follows is a sample policy that I have had crafted in the past.
You will note in Sample 1 that a specific number of retakes is defined as is the amount of time required between attempts. This was a document that every employee seeking certification had to sign and date. The way this was crafted would also work with some minor edits being applied for customers as well.
Figure 1: Sample Retake Policy
Next, we will address the need for a policy on exam security and cheating.