This feature first appeared in Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
When people in the IT industry hear the words “Microsoft certification” they will typically think of the high-level credentials for products like Azure, Visual Studio, and SQL Server. There is another category of Microsoft certification, however, that has survived the last two decades while many other Microsoft credentials have circled the drain: the venerable Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) program.
Developed back in the Jurassic era of information technology, the Microsoft Office productivity suite has quietly hung in there through decades of the IT industry’s turbulent evolution. It’s a testament to this product line’s remarkable staying power that there has been a version of Microsoft Office available for work and home PCs for more than 30 years as of this writing.
Given the current state of the IT industry and the modern workplace, however, a question arises: Is there still a serviceable niche for Microsoft Office certification in 2023? The likes of Word, Outlook, Excel, and PowerPoint have been increasingly elbowed aside by copycat products such as, for example, those managed by Google: Docs, Gmail, Sheets, and Slides. Does Microsoft still have a leg up on the competition in any meaningful sense? And what is the present-day value of getting a Microsoft Office certification?
The MOS branch of the Microsoft family tree
The Microsoft Office Specialist certification program has been updated regularly as new versions of the Office productivity suite have been released. Some applications have been added to the program, only to be removed later. The MOS program as it exists today is a more fit and trim version of its previous incarnations.
Where the MOS program once had three levels of qualification, the former Master level has been eliminated, leaving only the Associate and Expert levels intact. Another change to the MOS track was made to accommodate the Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) software-as-a-service model. In this model, Office apps are constantly updated rather than being iterated through major releases based on two-or-three-year cycles.
Reflecting this modified approach, MOS credential names are differentiated by listing either the year of release — a practice that ended after 2019 — or a reference to the 365 product line. For example, the current version of the expert-level MOS certification for Microsoft Word is listed as either “Microsoft Word Expert (Office 2019)” or "Word Expert (Microsoft 365 Apps)."
(It’s worth nothing that there is an Office 2021 version, but it is primarily for home users who prefer to pay a one-time fee rather than sign up for an annual subscription. For example, Office Home and Student 2021 is a popular one-time purchase option for students on a budget.)
As you would expect, passing the Associate exam for an Office app or 365 app makes you a certified MOS Associate for that app. Passing the Expert exam upgrades the certification accordingly. The exceptions to this are PowerPoint and Outlook, which are only available at the Associate level, and Access, which starts and ends at the Expert level.
There are also two group MOS certifications based on the individual product exams. Passing any three of the four Associate exams earns the Microsoft Office Specialist: Associate (Microsoft 365 Apps) or the Microsoft Office Specialist: Associate (Office 2019) certification. This milestone can be upgraded by passing any two of the three Expert exams, which ups the credential to the Microsoft Office Specialist: Expert (Microsoft 365 Apps) or Microsoft Office Specialist: Expert (Office 2019) certification.
The MOS program structure makes sense when you consider the apps themselves. Word and Excel both have functionality that spans mid-level to expert knowledge levels. PowerPoint and Outlook are more limited in scope, and rightly stop at the Associate level. Access requires database design fundamentals straight out of the gate, so it skips Associate and goes straight to the Expert level.
Who is MOS certification for?
Now that we have a clear picture of the current state of the MOS program, let’s consider the question of who MOS certification might be intended for. And, in 2023, does it make sense for anyone to be pursuing these credentials?
Some people argue that the MOS Associate credentials should be the bare minimum expected of anyone coming out of high school who intends to work in an office. While MOS certifications are often pursued by students in K-12 schools, basic Word and Excel use doesn’t really require the level of instruction found in the MOS Associate training.
Honestly, every word processor can be used as a glorified typewriter, and every spreadsheet can serve as fancy graph paper. The point where MOS certification starts to become relevant is in the job role of an information worker versus an office worker.
Office workers typically use only the most basic functions of Microsoft Office apps. They use Word to type up simple documents and save/print them, and they use Outlook for e-mail and to manage basic scheduling demands.
On the other hand, information workers are typically expected to have more advanced skills with the Office suite. Information workers can be called on to create complex Word documents containing advanced formatting and layout options. Or they might need to compile Excel spreadsheets with built-in formulas, multiple sorting capabilities, and configurable charts.
Based on their job role, information workers are the primary audience for MOS training and certification. The MOS program is suitable for someone who wants to gain expertise with one or more Office apps and be able to show proof of these skills to potential employers.
MOS today (Gone tomorrow?)
No one wants to spend the time and resources necessary to earn an IT certification for a software product that no longer has relevance in the industry. So when considering the value of MOS certification it’s fair to ask the question: Is Microsoft Office still relevant in the working world?
The short answer is yes. During a Build 2016 keynote, Microsoft reported that more than a billion individuals worldwide use an Office product or service. Microsoft’s first quarter results in 2020 listed 200 million monthly active Office 365 users. In its Q3 results for 2021, Microsoft reported it had nearly 300 million paid Office 365 seats.
As noted above, one of Microsoft’s chief competitors in productivity apps is Google. Google’s strategy of pulling users into its ecosystem by offering free versions of its productivity apps has produced strong results over the last two decades. The company’s freeware apps have served as an effective feeder system into its paid enterprise productivity suite, Google Workspace.
Google Workspace adds a number of collaboration apps and tools, removes the ads found in the free versions, and provides advanced configuration and user management options through an admin panel.
Google has also established itself as the go-to K-12 education option with its inexpensive Chromebook laptop PCs, a program with the power to potentially influence generations of future business managers and IT decision makers.
Microsoft has countered Google by creating web and mobile versions of its most popular Office apps and offering these versions for free to home users who create a Microsoft Account. (Nostalgia note: Who else out there recalls Microsoft Passport, .NET Passport, or Windows Live ID? These were all predecessors of the present-day Microsoft Account system.)
The bottom line is this: Microsoft Office still has a dominant presence in the workplace. Word might be the most used word processor on the planet, and Excel keeps building its reputation as the Swiss Army knife of spreadsheets and data management.
And when people delve into the advanced features of Microsoft Office, they are often surprised by the robust versatility of the apps. Word has evolved into a fully viable desktop publishing product, and Excel has data management capacity that few people are aware of until they take a deep dive into its functionality.
When you add Microsoft Office’s level of interoperability with the company’s other enterprise products like SharePoint, Azure, and SQL Server, it’s not difficult to see how the Office suite has managed to maintain its popularity in the workplace.
MOS is alive and well
You might be a young student who wants to build on your existing Word or Excel skills. Or you could be an information worker looking to validate your Office expertise to your current employer (or maybe a future one). In either case, the Microsoft Office Specialist training and certification program has something to offer you.
Microsoft Office may have made its debut decades ago, but it is still a highly relevant productivity suite with a strong presence at the enterprise level of business and commerce. This relevance adds to MOS certification’s value as an industry credential and proof of skill for information workers.
Best of all, MOS is arguably one of the most accessible IT industry training and certification programs as it is based on software many people encounter early in their lives. The MOS program was designed to build on a candidate’s existing skills, while expanding their knowledge of the total functionality of the product.
It’s a smart design decision that other certification programs could take pointers from. And if Microsoft can effectively battle back against Google’s emerging stranglehold on the K-12 productivity app sphere, then future generations of information workers will continue to be MOS-ready just as they begin to think about their employment future.