This feature first appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
NOTE: Want to create your own certification program? This is Part 2 of 2. The first article addressing this topic was printed in the 2016 Fall Edition of Certification Magazine.
In the October issue of Certification Magazine, I covered in detail how to design and launch a top quality IT certification program. Picking up from there, let's look at what it takes to improve and move a program to the next level.
This entails marketing, showing ROI, adding benefits, setting recertification rules, reviewing pricing, automating credential management, making security decisions, enhancing the program framework, growing the numbers, and (perhaps most importantly of all) creating buzz for your program. We'll also take a brief look at the booming certification market in India, which involves a unique set of issues.
Establishing certification exams that command a high level of respect from the marketplace is essential. It can take years to recover from a poorly written exam, and the blowback can be enough to sink a program and badly damage the reputation of an affiliated company or organization. This is the absolute core requirement to always be in place.
One of the first items that any outside analyst will investigate regarding a certification program is whether it has a clear roadmap in place, as discussed previously. Of equal importance, however, is whether the larger marketplace deems the new program a worthy endeavor. Ergo, once a new program is on firm footing, growth becomes a key success indicator.
Keeping all of this in mind, there still must be a sense of obligation to protect the integrity and value of your new program's certification exams. This means winning the continued acceptance of the marketplace and industry by delivering (and identifying) value to individual participants.
One benchmark to strive for is having customers demand your certification as a baseline qualification from everyone involved with a project or service. This also means having the certification credentials included in RFPs (requirements for proposal).
Determining Return on Investment (ROI)
From a company or organizational standpoint, the ROI is often measured in hard money costs. Breaking even is generally the minimum acceptable goal and that means exam fees need to offset the costs of exam publishing, delivery and labor. That is fairly easy to measure.
Looking deeper, however, you should also attempt to quantify the cost of moving forward with no certification program. What happens if the company or organization does not offer certification? How much business will it lose?
It's also important to remember that time is money. If it takes six months for one exam to come out, then time — and therefore money — has been lost. Which is not to suggest that speed to market is essential above all other considerations. Any exam or certification needs to measure and validate performance-essential skills and knowledge, so exam quality is always of critical importance.
Value is also determined by perception. Certification and training are products, and when any vendor offers a product free of charge, its value is at least made suspect, if not diminished outright. Bear in mind the following:
Certification exams should never be given out free. End of story. Exams have hard costs.
Any relevant training given out must be covered by the training provider. Training freebies come out of their end of the deal. Training costs money to build, it is a product. Protect that investment.
Sales deals should automatically include training. More training leads to more certifications. More training and certifications means customers and partners are enabled to do their jobs successfully, leading to repeat business — the best kind to have.
You should consider two other key ROI benchmarks:
Are projects completed faster with certified professionals? With less errors? And higher satisfaction? Measure that.
Do partners or customers who are certified know their stuff? Do they call in less frequently for technical support? Measure that.
Moving your program forward
Here are three key actions that can unlock the potential of your program (pun intended):
1. Conduct a Program Framework Workshop with Stakeholders
2. Master Your Marketing
3. Define and Enforce Partner Program Certification Requirements
Conduct a Workshop with Stakeholders
You will use this meeting to address the framework of the program. As programs pick up momentum, they also pick up critics, and no matter where the chatter is coming from, whether it is valid or not, it becomes necessary to address the blowback. The good news is that, by conducting a workshop, buy-in and support across the board is assured. The downside is that changes will likely need to be made.
Gathering stakeholders for a 2-to-3-day workshop will determine future courses of action, some of which may not be easy to agree with. If there is a solid program in place, however, then it may end up just being a tweak here and there. It is important to keep an open mind.
Any changes will require resources, and it is the responsibility of a certification program's owner to point out what that means. In essence, the workshop brings together decision makers from across the company. This means product owners, professional services, customer service, engineering, partner or channel programs, and other groups that depend upon or leverage your certification.
One of the participation requirements for the stakeholders is that they should have authority to sign off on plans and commit resources — meaning budget and/or Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Again, it is the certification program owner's responsibility to spell out what is needed based on any changes.
When reviewing the framework of the program, there is a need to look at the goals, the exams, the tracks, the costs and the feedback. Have all the core data in place and be as data-driven as possible. Have in-service analysis conducted on key exams, and review the dashboard to see how each exam is being consumed.
How does the program compare to others? Bring in as much industry data as possible. Have there been any white papers done that can be brought in? The more data that you have in hand, the easier it will be to stay focused. Gathering substantial data will also offset hearsay.
Gauge the Health of Your Program
Whether or not a framework workshop is conducted, here are some health check items to look at:
Messaging — From an operations perspective, how automated is the program and its customer support? Consider the following:
- Automated messaging to encourage recertification
- Regular messaging to inform certificants about upcoming training or special events
- Automated messaging for expiring credentials (30-, 60-, and 90-day notice)
Marketing — There should be a marketing plan in place that is reviewed and updated weekly. Is that being done? Consider the following:
- Is the program website easy to find and easy to use? (A solid website is your call deflection center, so having it easy to find — and use — is paramount to success. Get metrics on how it stacks up with the rest of your organization's pages and sites.)
- Update the testimonial page. Update badges, logos, stickers, and pins. (Always be promoting, and date stamp your promotion- al items.)
- Advertising. Figure out the When and Where of your advertising. A key consideration here is sponsorships at events, including your company's.
- Industry survey participation and sharing of results. (Certification Magazine salary surveys are an excellent means of demonstrating the value of certification credentials to individuals.)
- More on marketing in a minute. Stay tuned.
Benefits — While it is great to have the recognition of peers and the industry, your certification holders will appreciate also drawing more tangible benefits. Consider the following:
- Discounted attendance at company events
- Invitations to roundtables or special webinars
- Meet-and-greet access to thought leaders from within your organization
Exam Update Schedule — Update your exams every six months. Consider the following:
- Which exams to update and which ones to retire. Remember that some exams are just political and have to stay up, while others have limited shelf life.
- Design, design, design. If designed properly, exams can last forever with minor technical updates. The key is to thoroughly vet your exam blueprint objectives.
- Alert stakeholders about pending updates and retirements. Get them ready for changes.
Recertification — What are the rules for the upcoming year? Post them on the website (and in your FAQ file). Consider:
- Inform your stakeholders of pending changes for the upcoming year by Dec. 1.
- Simplify. Passing one core exam should renew all credentials held by any individual.
- Don't duplicate your testing. Passing an advanced exam should automatically recertify lower level credentials.
Credential Management — What is involved in tracking and monitoring your certifications? Consider the following:
- Is there an automated dashboard in place for members?
- Is there an automated dashboard in place for stakeholders?
- How manual are the processes? Is it time to move on from a spreadsheet?
Exam Delivery — The manner in which your exams are delivered impacts security, and affects the resources required for both tracking and reporting. Consider the following:
- Review contracts with test providers yearly.
- Review costs, expenses, and revenue.
- Review your exam pricing. If you have not raised your prices in a few years, it is probably time to do so.
- Is it time to add online proctored testing? This fast-growing solution can be more secure than test centers.
- Review your exam security. You will likely need to blacklist some countries, meaning no exams offered there. Exceptions can be made for government personnel as needed.
- Along the same lines, be sure that your test delivery includes automated flags for suspicious activity.
What Should You Do to Encourage Growth?
Without exception, the greatest gains in participation happen when Partner or Channel Programs not only adopt the use of your certification credentials, but begin to require them as a condition of employment.
If partners use a tiered program, then there are usually a number of certifications required to stay employed at a given level. It is a great tool for partner programs to move professionals to different level or even eliminate them altogether.
It also helps if losing the benefits of that particular tier will hurt. Technical support and customer service are burdened by non-certified field personnel, so that is a key selling point for any certification program.
The spike in participation from a partner's designating your credential as required can be upwards of 100-to-300 percent for a program that delivers at least 2,000 exams per year. Hence, partner programs should have a seat at the stakeholder framework workshop (if there is one).
Bear in mind, of course, that partners should still have some skin in the game, like budget. Remember, untrained and uncertified partners can tax the company's resources and business, so this is a critical factor to address.
If you have a university program involved, then that sets a base level. More experience is required, however, to be effective in the field. Consider bringing in a training partner who can deliver that "next level" type of training. IT developers looking to make a move in their careers would be looking at this type of training and certification.
The simplest approach for this arrangement is to take a percentage of sales in return for access to Intellectual Property (IT) and "train the trainer" activities. This could be a most effective way to grow the numbers in the certification program.
Declaring (and Actually Achieving) Success as a New Program
If goals have been established and the metrics to success agreed upon by the leadership of a given organization, then the program is way ahead of the game. What is next? If, on the other hand, goals have not been met, then what is the plan of action to achieve them? What is next? Notice the pattern here?
Here are some key benchmarks to consider when evaluating your success. What messages are you sending?
To not be an elite program when your competitors are, sends a message.
To put out a poor quality product — in this case, your certification program — sends a message.
To not promote the program sends a message to your participants.
To bury the program on the company website sends a message.
To not have a registry of certified individuals sends a message.
To not offer digital logos — Trend alert! — on your website sends a message.
To not have company leadership publicly speak about the program sends a message.
Not having participation in the program be a requirement among your partners sends a message.
All of these things add up. Be sure that you know what the total picture will look like. Continuous improvement is the key. There always should be an action plan with milestones.
Reporting — The easiest number to track and report, of course, is the "McDonald's sign" total. Everyone knows the phrase "Billions and billions served." How many of your certifications have been earned? There are, of course, other important yardsticks.
Measuring pass/fail rate, for example, is a simple calculation involving the number of tests taken and the number of passes. If 100 tests have been taken, then 70 passes yields a pass rate of 70 percent. Do we know, however, whether someone has failed 10 times, thereby lowering the pass rate all by himself? Do we know whether half the people who get a passing score have had to retake the exam?
A better measurement is to calculate your success rate. If 100 people attempt the exam, and 70 of those people eventually pass it, then you have a 70 percent success rate. Some or all of those 100 people, however, may take the exam multiple times before passing. Say that the exam is taken 140 total times, before the 70 successful candidates have all passed it. That's a pass rate of just 50 percent, but 70 out of 100 individuals still ultimately succeeded. Using success rate gives you a better look at your candidate pool and what it takes to earn your program's credentials.
Putting it All Together
So how can one boost the numbers, leverage limited resources, preserve the integrity of the program, and still cope with the blurring of digital badging and certification? One answer is layering. By using one high-stakes proctored exam as a base, candidates can earn additional digital badges upon completion of certain courses, or passage of non-proctored online tests.
Keep in mind there is always a need to track these events and tie them to your organization's Certification Management System (a spreadsheet will often suffice until the program can afford a proper CMS). Course completions with a quiz at the end allow for easier tracking. An online test should have the same rigor in test creation, but may be much shorter in length.
These smaller tests are easier to produce and the course completion quizzes easier still. This now means a core certification exam, buttressed by courses and quizzes, is in effect a new credential. You have taken ABC Certification and spun off ABC + Digital Badge Certification. Digital badges can be called "specializations," but the requirements to earn one will always be tied to the root credential and its high-stakes exam.
It's certainly far easier to create 15 specializations than it is to produce 15 high-stakes exams. Yet, the end result is often viewed as being equivalent. Voila! Your numbers have just been boosted.
This approach also allows you to keep your core exam clean and focused, rather than attempting to have it address everything under the sun. (Or under your organization's product line. Got a stray product? Create a specialty badge.)
Another key advantage here is to level the recertification playing field. ABC Certification earned in 2017 requires earning one of three digital badge specializations to recertify in 2018. Keeping candidates current without making them pass another high stakes exam is something they will appreciate. The cost can also be much lower to them, but it is incremental revenue for your program.
A Word About India
India is an interesting IT certification marketplace all on its own. Test security is a major concern, as exams used elsewhere in the world are often harvested and repackaged by black market operators in India. Consider the following:
- Creating exams that are unique for use in India. Also, try to use Indian resources to create them.
- These India exams would have several test forms with high overlap.
- Any exams flagged for suspicious behavior would be pulled.
- Keep only select centers open, ones that have not shown any suspicious results.
- Use only a training partner to deliver the exams, rather than independent test centers.
- Keep the pricing the same in relation to the rest of the world — good exams have value and will be purchased.
- Do not offer free retakes. The test will be dive-bombed by teams who collect the test items and build practice exams. The results will also be skewed as failure rate will dramatically go up.
Marketing: A Few Final Suggestions
If you build it, will they come? Your certification program needs to be so compelling that it is seen as a strategic differentiator.
Here are some recommend buckets and deliverables for your marketing plan:
- Data sheets for the program overview and certification tracks
- Brochures — one small handout to include training and certification information
- Price List — course and exam pricing
- Course Catalog — This helps prospective candidates understand where certification slots into the course offerings.
- Learning Paths — This will guide the candidate through training and certification.
- Digital badges, Stickers and Pins — This helps to promote brand awareness (a sticker on a lap- top, a pin on a shirt at a conference). Digital swag will trumpet your brand profile pages, in e-mail signature, and so forth.
- FAQ File — This should be one of the first things available outward bound
- Posters — Easily digestible details, all in one place.
- E-mail Campaigns — Know your audience and tailor both the frequency of your contact and your messaging. Any email campaign should have an embedded call to action: "Enroll today for the next ABC class to be held in the following locations," and so forth. Track page opens, website hits, enrollments and so forth.
- Program Launch Checklist — Be sure to have one, be sure to include marketing activities.
- Sales Enablement — What is the sales force saying about your program? Are they selling it?
- Internal promotion — What's being said about the program within your organization's own ranks?
- If you don't have one, then start planning.
- A subscription takes time to build momentum, but it helps with forecasting the training revenue, and the more training, the more certifications will be earned.
- Special events and roadshows
- Special Community Meet-Ups in a relaxed and fun atmosphere (after hours)
- Blogs, ideally mini-blogs
- Be consistent and brief, with links and calls for action.
Social Media and Web
- Have your social media link back to your website whenever possible.
- Make it very easy for participants to find info and make a purchase.
Advertising and Promotion
- Figure out all you can do without a budget.
- World class programs do advertise, figure out where.
The Last Word
Remember to stress outcomes. What matters gets measured, what is measured, matters. Training and certification is a valuable product. If you have a world-class certification program, then your training and certification matters!
NOTE: Want to create your own certification program? This is Part 2 of 2. The first article addressing this topic was printed in the 2016 Fall Edition of Certification Magazine.