Qualification vs. Certification

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Are you better off using qualifications than certifications?Qualification versus certification. What exactly are we talking about, and does the high-tech marketplace even understand the distinction? How about the individuals who are asked to obtain credentials? Does it matter to them whether they are qualified or certified?

There are many challenges facing the high-tech industry today. One of those challenges is to ensure there are properly trained employees who can execute business plans and strategies, as well as perform technical duties. It also becomes imperative for companies to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to job readiness for their workforce.

Instead of simply responding to customer complaints (or losing business), problem prevention could (and maybe should) be the focus. To take it another step, products undergo rigorous testing before they are released to the marketplace. Why not people?

How then should companies verify or test to ensure that the right people are in the right place with the appropriate skill sets? The same tests can’t be applied for all people. It wouldn’t make sense to develop a highly technical test for a salesperson, or a test that could only be applied to a very small audience. The return on investment (ROI) just would not be there.

There might be other choices for validating workforce readiness, but for this discussion, it comes down to qualification or certification.

In making choices about testing, understanding your audience is the key. There are financial and resource concerns involved when you decide to test. For the high-tech industry, there have been high-stakes (certification) exams in place for the past decade or so. These high-stakes exams go through rigorous test development processes and psychometric evaluation. This takes time, effort and money, and ROI is constantly being scrutinized — as well it should be — but this investment is what helps make certification valuable to the industry.

If a company has a channel partner that is supposed to be an extension of the workforce, how can it ensure the partner has the right people in place? One way is through testing — but does it always have to be high-stakes (certification) exams? Can it be something else, like low-stakes testing leading to a qualification?

Many companies and industry associations are looking at offering certification and qualification programs. For example, the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) is planning to offer a qualification program to the sales professional audience in the next few months as a complement to its certification program.

How did SNIA come to this decision, and how do companies decide when to certify and when to qualify? For the purposes of this article, certification represents high-stakes exams. Qualification represents low-stakes exams, including online tests and/or training attendance.

Drawing a distinction

What do we mean by “low-stakes testing”?

● Non-proctored (No. 1 criteria)
● Primarily web-based
● Does not have the rigor and discipline of the certification exam development process and life cycle

What audiences are appropriate for qualification? An audience that requires time-to-market information as products rapidly change would be well suited for qualification. Sales or presales technical support people would be ideal candidates. There is a short training cycle, and therefore a short exam development cycle is required as well.

Non-proctored, eeb-based exams can scale to a worldwide audience and allow for a large pool of participants to engage in a timely fashion, so channel partners can also be included effectively. For those qualification programs that “require” training, non-proctored online testing enables companies to track and report.

Qualification programs also could apply to various internal groups where low-stakes assessments can be used to determine skills readiness and training paths. Usually people will take the path of least resistance. If it is easier to get qualified and it meets business or company requirements, then it makes sense for them to choose that route.

If the marketplace sees no value in the qualification credential, however, then the individual won’t pursue it.

Pros and cons 

The advantages for qualification over certification:

● Quicker time to market
● Cost
● Convenient to take (online at workstation)

The disadvantages for qualification:

● No validation that the registered test taker is the person who completed the test
● Audience ROI demands short exam development cycle, affecting quality
● May not be legally defensible and should not be used for hiring/firing practices

To offset the disadvantage of non-validation of the test taker, there are a couple of strategies that can be employed. The first is to market the qualification tests as “open-book,” but emphasize the goal of “teach through testing.”

This approach is a contrast to certification, which tests, rather than teaches. An open-book approach could make it more appealing for those who have a host of reasons for not taking the test and would hopefully discourage any reason for violating the rules to obtain the credential, ultimately devaluing the credential itself.

To be more explicit, you can build assessments that are actually learning tools. Skill readiness testing is a prime example of this type of approach. For instance, a student would be asked to find and use a resource guide on the Web for the answers to a set of questions. The goal of this type of assessment is to teach the student how to use the resource guide. In essence, you are teaching first, followed by immediate validation.

Another way to leverage the open-book method is to provide the answers within the question. Hopefully, by increasing the value of the test-taking experience, you will increase the likelihood that the person who took the test is the same as the person who signed up for the assessment.

Further considerations

Are you better off using qualifications than certifications?These online qualification tests often command a short exam development cycle. Despite the time and resource challenges resulting from these short cycles, you can still follow best practices used in certification item development whenever possible. You just might not be able to follow them to the nth degree, as you would for certification exams.

In the past, qualification programs suffered from too many shortcuts in the test development process. You still should perform a job task analysis (of varying degrees), however, or use a valid source domain. It is also wise to use a sufficient group of documented subject-matter experts (SMEs) to write the exam items and include review sessions with proper references and source material cited.

Be sure to also post rules, policies and procedures. By following these guidelines, you can construct a viable and effective qualification program.

With qualification programs, the beta cycle can be bypassed. A post-psychometric evaluation should be scheduled as part of the maintenance program. The exam would then be updated according to the results of this evaluation. In fact, certification exams that have low beta participant numbers need to schedule a post-psychometric evaluation as well.

Lack of SMEs, mostly due to time and resource constraints, is not as critical an issue with qualification tests, because there are fewer items to be written. If one chooses the “teach while testing” method, it will take time to write such items, but there won’t need to be as many. Again, this meets the faster time-to-market issue.

Looking ahead

In the future, it may be possible to proctor all web-based tests. In the meantime, however, open-book and “teach while you test” may just be the best alternative for certain audiences. This approach may also help alleviate test cheating issues and concerns. Certification exams will have a future in high-tech. It is just a matter of the degree to which they eventually become widely adopted and employed.

Until that happens, managers and executives would be well advised to consider the merits of qualification testing. There’s no silver bullet that can instantly solve staffing needs with a plethora of qualified personnel. Used properly, however, qualifications can turn an ongoing headache into a business asset. And that’s an outcome we can all be happy with.

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Peter Manijak


Peter Manijak is a certification innovator and pioneer. He is responsible for creating the EMC Proven Professional, SNIA Certification, Hitachi Data Systems Certification, and Acquia (Drupal) Certification programs, all from ground zero. Peter can be contacted at petermanijak@gmail.com.

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