Management: SMEs—The Brains Behind the Outfit

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Perhaps the most important resource that certification managers have at their disposal is mental capital—the amassed knowledge of the content developers, course designers, psychometricians and other experts. When their talents are properly utilized and blended together, these subject-matter experts (SMEs) make credentialing programs relevant, appealing, informative and practical for learners as well as an employer-recognized vehicle for instructing and assessing professionals.


Just ask the Institute of Certified Professional Managers’ (ICPM) Director of Administration Lynn S. Powell, who oversees that organization’s certified manager (CM) credentialing program, designed for management professionals in any field. She has an abundance of SMEs. “In terms of the actual content of the program, what we do to develop the body of knowledge and the core competencies that we cover is perform a job-task analysis every five years,” she said. “We go out to thousands of managers in all sorts of industries, both in national and international companies.”


The process is conducted through an electronic database, which allows ICPM to poll a multiplicity of managers as well as the staff and clientele of other related training organizations, Powell said. “It’s pretty broad-brush. We send them a survey of key skills and have them rate the importance of the skills. They also rate how well managers in their particular organization perform those skills. We can get an idea of what they think is important and how well that plays out in their particular companies. We do collect demographic data, so that we can go in and splice and dice and do queries on the data to see if one industry answers differently from another industry. We also segregate the data by national companies and international companies to see if there’s any differential in what’s important in other countries versus what’s important in the United States. It’s nice to get it from different areas.”


SMEs, particularly psychometricians, also contribute to development and improvement of the certification tests. “Once we have administered exams, we do keep extensive data on the exam results,” Powell said. “Then we use a psychometrician to evaluate the data and run reliability and validity statistics on the data. We look at the test questions and those that have scored poorly over a large amount of data collection. We’ll go back in and review those questions and see if they need clarification on how they’re being asked or how the responses are stated. We spend a lot of time looking at how people perform on the exams to make sure they’re very tight and that the answers are very succinct and not subjective.”


For the Clark Wilson Group (CWG), which provides products and services for skills development to HR professionals and line managers, SMEs have made the certification courses around its offerings far more effective, said Paul Connolly, a psychometrician and vice president of CWG. “I’ve been very pleased with their contributions and insights, especially the instructional designers.”


Connolly worked with learning pioneer Clark Wilson, who developed the Task Cycle Theory for performance management, as a co-author and a technical advisor for the Task Cycle’s 360-degree feedback features in the late 1960s and early 1970s. CWG formed a certification program about 15 years ago to support its skilling tools. “I think we had the right parts for a while, but they weren’t in an effective flow,” he said of the program’s early stages. “We were doing things too early, before people were ready.”


The instructional design SMEs, who use charts, graphs and models to create presentations, enhanced CWG’s certifications by making the learning process smoother and more coherent. “The instructional design people are the consultants on flow—what should happen in what sequence to make it most effective as a learning tool,” Connolly said. “The look and feel aspects are not just superficial. They actually help people learn because they flow.”


One group of SMEs that shouldn’t be overlooked in all of this is the certification candidates, who offer a unique perspective to credentialing program managers, Connolly said. “The customer feedback, whether or not people feel confident and comfortable, is how we take a look periodically and revise the course,” he explained. “We’re always looking for ideas. Some of the best suggestions have come from participants. Being open to that, and having a process to capture that, is part of what keeps us going.”

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