Building a certification program, Step 1: What is certification?
Posted on
April 3, 2018

NOTE: This is an ongoing series. To view all articles in the series, click here.

Your first step to building a certification program? Define certification.

Over the last 25 years certification has grown in popularity because of its applicability to a wide scope of business and professional needs. This applicability to a wide array of business needs has promoted the development of certification programs.

As one who has developed several such programs I have opted through a series of articles to share with you some of the key decisions that are required to develop a successful certification program. In this article, I will first share the need to develop an operational definition the requires buy-in from you and all of your leadership teams.

Step One: The Definition

Certification is defined and interpreted in many different ways. Until an organization agrees on a definition of certification, it will become virtually impossible to interest potential candidates in your program. Before developing your own definition, it is always a good first step to see how others have defined the process. Here are some widely used definitions.

According to Barksdale and Lund (1998), certification in its most basic form, is simply a test employees take to confirm a body of knowledge in a defined field. In addition, when viewed from a more rigorous standpoint, certification is a highly structured process that rewards, encourages, instructs, and confirms employees.

In Schule’s (2009) analysis of certifications, he claims a healthcare certification is a signal to the public that a person has attained a body of expert knowledge; or a way to promote the knowledge, skills, and abilities revered by a specialty. When Novell was the major player in the certification space, they defined certification in part with the following language:

“Certification provides tangible proof that you have the knowledge it takes to perform your job.”

Microsoft skewed away from this knowledge language in their definition of certification by saying the following: “Certification is a way to build and demonstrate your technology expertise and skills … designed to provide the recognition you need to help you excel in your career and provide employers with validation of your skills.”

The American Association of Critical Care Nurses expands once again on the definition of certification by stating the following:

Your first step to building a certification program? Define certification.

“Certification is a voluntary process of validating knowledge, skills and abilities beyond the scope of RN licensure. Nursing certification has benefits for patients and families, employers, and nurses.

“In recognition of the value of certification, many facilities are creating a ‘Culture of Certification’ that promotes and supports certified nursing practice. The body of research relating to certified practice is also growing, quantifying the outcomes of certified nursing practice.”

The Institute for Credentialing Excellence leverages the following definition:

Certification affirms a knowledge and experience base for practitioners in a particular field, their employers, and the public at large. Certification represents a declaration of a particular individual’s professional competence.

According to the ISPI (International Society for Performance Improvement): “Certification is a credential that is given to people who satisfy a set of requirements.”

The International Society for Performance Improvement’s certification is performance-based rather than education-based. It recognizes practitioners who have demonstrated proficiency in 10 Standards of Performance Technology in ways that are in keeping with the Code of Ethics.

Individuals who receive the Certified Performance Technologist (CPT) designation must be re-certified every three years to maintain the credential.

What is your definition?

When you have completed reviewing this limited list of historically represented definitions, it is easy to decide which of these might help your organization. Some clearly communicate the purpose of the certification, while others clearly are focused on the methods of certification, while others hint at who the target audience for the certification is: employees, customers or contractors.

It has been my experience that the definition that has the easiest buy-in addresses all three elements clearly and succinctly.

Here are two samples that I developed for clients. The second took the least amount of time and effort to reach consensus.

Organization 1: Certification is a quantifiable and verifiable validation of a person’s skills, abilities, and knowledge of a product, suite of products or solution, based upon a strict set of standards within a defined hierarchy. Certification requires continued learning and skill development to maintain one’s credentials and industry-leading expertise.

Organization 2: Certification is a method used by [Organization 2] to assess the professional capability, competence and proficiency of a practitioner, and his/her ability to perform an assigned role to a level that garners customer confidence and satisfaction. In line with a defined Certification Roadmap, this is assessed based on one or more of the following criteria:

1. Competency-based evaluation
2. Knowledge-based evaluation
3. Oral-based evaluation
4. Performance-based evaluation

So your first job if you want to build a successful certification program is to develop a definition that clearly communicates the purpose, the methods used, and possibly the target audience for the new program. Once you have a draft definition, pass it around your leadership and then put your editor’s hat on until you reach a final definition where you have consensus.

What’s next?

Your first step to building a certification program? Define certification.

According to Coscarelli, Robins, Shrock, and Herbst (1998), a clear definition of certification is needed for a certification program to succeed. According to Schule (2009), when an organization first meets to explore the prospect of creating a certification program, an initial strategic decision is to agree upon an accepted definition of certification for the organization. Without this initial requirement being satisfied the probability of program success is virtually zero.

The second key decision I will discuss in the next article in this series is the need to adopt a simple graphical model that becomes the foundation of an elevator speech. In the following articles, I will present a graphical framework that I have developed and continuously revise based on client requirements.

About the Author

Warren E. Wyrostek is a Solutions Oriented Educator and Leader, a Certified Trainer and Facilitator, an Experienced DACUM Enthusiast, and an innovative Certification and Assessment expert in demand. Warren holds a Doctorate in Education in Curriculum and Instruction. Currently Warren is an Adjunct at Valdosta State University and the owner of 3WsConsulting - Providing Efficient And Effective Top To Bottom Solutions To Learning Issues. Warren can be reached at

Posted to topic:

Important Update: We have updated our Privacy Policy to comply with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)

CompTIA IT Project Management - Project+ - Advance Your IT Career by adding IT Project Manager to your resume - Learn More