Building a certification program, Step 2: The model
Posted on
May 1, 2018

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

When creating a certification program, a crucial early step is to create the model that will communicate your vision.

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

In this the second article in this series I will present what I have found to be the key to getting leadership buy-in for a certification program — namely a simple graphical model that represents the high-level concept that is the foundation for your proposed program. The model, to be effective, has to be simple to understand and communicate, logical in its approach, and finally has to be stable in its representation of your program’s mission.

Step Two: The high-level conceptual model

Certification can be represented and understood in many ways. The conceptual variations often account for why most programs fail initially. Either the model that leadership was sold was not simple to understand, and consequently communicate, or it was not logical or stable and did not fit with the business’ mission, approach, or the program definition.

The model I have used for more than 10 years is that of a three-legged stool. In this model, certification is the seat or the platform, which rests on or is supported by three key inputs or legs:

  • Training and/or education
  • Testing and/or measurement
  • Marketing

Each leg must be given equal support and weight, or the certification program will not be stable or balanced. The three legs finally must be tied together by strong stretchers, which for our model is good communication.

Even though the model you select might vary in its structural components, to paraphrase a concept I used to teach Novell Engineers, the model must be easy to use and easy to communicate. This three-legged stool is a simple structure conceptually that is easy to grasp for non-certification-versed leadership, and subsequently is easy for the leadership to communicate to customers and the C Suite.

The other benefit to this simplistic model is it can be used to evaluate your program. For example, if a stool has one long or short leg, or a missing leg, the stool loses its functional purpose: to sit down on a stable platform. This model has been used to evaluate whether all the legs, the program inputs, are balanced, providing a stable platform for certification.

If by some chance your program seems out of balance, this model also reminds you how critical communication is to a stable platform. If by chance your legs (the program inputs) are each balanced, but they are not securely tied to each other by good communication, then your stool will wobble — just as your program will lack stability.

How do other programs measure up?

This model can also be used to evaluate other vendors’ programs. Several that have been reviewed over the years seemed to be relatively good programs but, when looked at through the glasses provided by this model, fall short.

Some were very strong on training and education but were short on marketing their program, so that few took advantage of it. One was very strong on training and education but fell short on their testing and measurement, to the point that test takers complained daily about test quality.

One program that really drove the value of this model home for me had very strong marketing, training and education, and testing divisions, but had little or no communication between legs. Students could pay upwards of $10,000 for training and walk into a test and be faced with items that bore no relation to the training causing them to abandon the certification.

The reason this fundamental weakness became known was that the training and education objectives were totally different from the testing objectives — indicating that those designing the training were not communicating with those designing the tests.

Even with a finely tuned marketing department supporting the end goal of certification, with limited or poor communication existing between training, testing, and marketing this program has had to continually reinvent itself to continue functioning.

A flexible configuration

When creating a certification program, a crucial early step is to create the model that will communicate your vision.

In my experience, based on the leadership’s perception of the mission of their certification program, I have recrafted this same model for customer-focused certification adding a fourth leg to cover performance-based testing. Thus, the three-legged stool for this client became a four-legged stool with two testing legs: one for knowledge-based testing, and one for performance-based testing.

My initial challenge to this model is what is the difference between a three-legged stool where all of testing was covered under one leg, and a four-legged stool where knowledge-based and performance-based are covered under separate legs? The client explained it to me in a way that made sense to me:

“With a single leg for testing our leadership might lose sight of the performance aspect of the program and fail to communicate it clearly to their customers. We need to make it clear for all of our employees and customers that we are NOT just testing on knowledge, but on their ability to perform tasks to our standards.”

I agreed and modified the three-legged stool by changing “testing” to “testing: knowledge” and by adding a fourth leg called “testing performance.” Their leadership bought into the four-legged model, as did their employees, which made the program a big success for this organization.

For other groups I have had to design a host of models that fit their purposes — but I always start out with the three-legged stool. It is a great beginning point to open the discussion to see what the organization’s leadership wants to be able to communicate about their program to potential candidates for their certification.

What’s next?

Now that you have the program definition created, and you have buy-in both for that and for a graphical model that will serve as the basis for marketing the program, next you will need a plan or framework for getting the program off the ground. Over the next several articles, I will offer in detail  my process for doing the work.

As always your comments and feedback are most welcome. To close I offer you:

Certification three-legged stool
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

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