The Delusion of Certification

Official professional certifications go back almost 500 years. In 1518 Thomas Linacre petitioned Henry VIII for permission to establish a college of physicians for the purpose of granting licenses to practice, and to punish “unqualified” practitioners. Over time this became the Royal College of Physicians in London. Prospective doctors had to pass exams to prove they were classically educated and possessed the right medical knowledge. To date this remains one of the most sort after certification in the world of medical profession.

The best known large scale certifications in Pakistan had been “International Standard Organization” (ISO) Certifications, that have had a roller coaster certification drive in the early to mid 90s. This was a time when manufacturing units all over Pakistan heaped lots of their resources on getting themselves certified and later conducting regular audits from third party auditors to maintain the standards thus set. Consultants also jumped to provide training to the companies for getting ISO certifications. Fast forward two and half decades later ISO certifications are now the norm and has a spread over different categories, though with less intensity as compared to the earlier stages.

Similar to this and other “systems” and “process” certifications, there are professional and people certifications as well. These certifications usually follow the formal highest educational qualifications of the individual. The best known certifications in this category are in Finance, Engineering, IT, Project Management and of course medicine. Chartered Accountants have long ruled the realm of certifications and they still do, perhaps because they relate to “treasury”. In recent times there is another certification in the professional arena i.e. Certification in Human Resource Management. Through this “Certified Human Resource Managers” are made.

On social media, a large number of advertisement campaigns for this certification are placed through pictures of trainees receiving certificates and trainers & HR professionals lecturing. Educational as well training institutes churning out Certified Human Resource Professionals in “bulk”. No doubt they are good trainees/participants, their teachers/trainers are good HR professionals. They impart worthwhile learning to the audience. These trainers are wonderful, capable Human Resource Professionals who teach good courses and transfer their knowledge in a nice manner and give participants practical exposure through their sessions. However, do they really “certify” them and do those who attend these programs and pay fees for certification really become “Certified Human Resource Professionals”.

Before we move ahead let us have an understanding about certification.

What are certificationsThese are said to be designated credentials earned by an individual to verify their “legitimacy” and “competence” to perform a job. A certification is typically a document stating that as a professional one has been trained, educated and is prepared to meet a “specific set” of criteria for a “given role”. This statement, paper or if called a certificate is awarded only after one has passed the proper assessments administered by a “recognized third-party” credentialing institute.

Another definition of certification states that: Professional Certification is the process by which a person “proves” that he or she has the knowledge, experience and skills to perform a “specific job and the tasks” in which they have been trained. The proof comes in the form of a certificate which is earned by passing one or more exams that were developed by an organization or association that monitors and upholds the prescribed standards for the particular industry involved.

“Certified” a definition by Cambridge Dictionary: an adjective “Approved by an official organization to do a particular job because you have successfully completed its examination and proved that you have the necessary training and qualifications”

“Certify” a definition by Oxford Learners Dictionary: a verb “to state officially, especially in writing, that something is “true”

There are three general types of certifications

Corporate or Organizational:Internal certifications made by a company to certify quality of training delivery and completion for quality purposes. For example, a corporation might require a training course for all sales personnel, after which they receive a certificate. While this certificate has limited portability (i.e., not useful to other corporations, organizations or areas of profession), it is the most simple to develop.

Product-specific: These certifications are more involved with products, and are intended to be referenced external to the company in the marketplace. This approach is prevalent in the information technology (IT) industry, where personnel are certified on a version of software or hardware. This type of certification is portable across locations (for example, different corporations that use that software), but not across other products. So, if you get CISCO certification in networking, it does not mean you can say you are certified in Microsoft or Oracle. Other examples of Product Specific certifications include

  • IASSC (Lean Six Sigma organizational structure methodology)
  • Software certifications, e.g. SalesForce, Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite
  • Google (Analytics, AdWords, Publisher)
  • HubSpot (Sales, Content, Inbound Marketing, Social Media), obtained through HubSpot Academy

Profession-Wide: This is the most general type of certification. Certification in the medical profession is often offered by particular specialties in Nursing, Diagnostics and Testing. In order to apply professional standards, increase the level of practice and possibly protect the public (though this is also the domain of licensure), a professional organization might establish a certification. This is intended to be portable to all places a certified professional might work. Of course, this generalization increases the cost of such a program; the process to establish a legally defensible assessment of an entire profession is very extensive. An example of this is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA), which would not be certified for just one corporation or one piece of accountancy software but for general work in the profession. Other examples of professional certifications include

  • CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst)
  • CIPM (Certificate in Investment Performance Measurement)
  • RA (Registered Architect)
  • CPL (Commercial Pilot License)
  • PMP (Project Management Professional)

First, second and third party certification: In first-party certification, an individual or organization providing the good or service offers assurance that it meets certain claims. In second-party certification, an association to which the individual or organization belongs provides the assurance. Third-party certification involves an independent assessment declaring that specified requirements pertaining to a product, person, process, or management system have been met.

In this respect, a notified body is a third-party, accredited body which is entitled by an accreditation body. Upon definition of standards and regulations, the accreditation body may allow a Notified body to provide third-party certification and testing services. All that ensures and assesses compliance to the previously-defined codes but also to provide an official certification mark or a declaration of conformity.

Now let’s turn back to our previous discussion regarding the certifications in HR. Let me also say here, that HR unfortunately is “considered” to be a very simple profession and everyone “thinks” that he/she can practice it if one has a good “common sense”. It might be true but lately “common sense” has also lost it meaning in translation.

Few days ago there was a brief debate on Facebook started by one such organization claiming to provide Certification in HR. The debate focused on comparison of International and Domestic HR certification and, “which one” should an individual do. The debate’s initiator (perhaps because he offered Domestic HR Certification) tried to value the domestic HR certification over International with the argument that it gives more practical knowledge and offer Pakistan specific case studies to handle the HR (which is a very good thing to teach and practice).

However, my idea in that online debate was not to focus on International or domestic certification but to consider “at least” four basic things in a certification. I argued in the comment section that any professional certification can be a “Certification” if it fulfills few basic things

1) Body of Knowledge : What knowledge base it is covering through the certification, the depth, breath and connectivity of knowledge with practice.

2) Depth of research: Is there any research on which the knowledge base is developed and is that research “rich” in content, data and coverage. Who is doing that research and is that research validated through sources that are meant to validate.

3) Relevance to the needs (cultural relevance included): Is the certification material covered in the courses relevant and practical to the needs of the professionals, challenging their current learning and bringing in, innovative yet meaningful ideas to improve their service delivery within the norms of the system and culture they are operating 

4) Originality of the content: Is the content used in this certification original and the organization that is doing the certification paid due royalties and have the licenses to use that material for certification of other individuals.

If nothing of the above or only one or two are done it may not be a certification at all. The question of international or domestic does not even arise here. However that activity (which is called certification) can be a good training & development and learning exercise.  

Now for the argument of Domestic Vs International. International certifications are called international because they are based on a complete set of relevance to each culture, as they have long-standing practical research to back their material. To me, certification should/can only be international as they prepare one to transform one’s learning according to the need. There isn’t any need to call any certification DOMESTIC, this is so, because of today’s highly connected world. One must bring depth, relevance, research, originality, and consistency in material and strive to be International. And at the same time it must not only be a money making program.

In HR case, please excuse my bias but certifications are only CIPD and SHRM. Those who have done this have shown their ability and one must not undermine that, just as one does not undermine a Chartered Accountant’s hard pressed efforts or a Doctor’s years of toil to reach at that level. Here i also do not intend to undermine the expertise of those who have not earned any CIPD or SHRM certification but are good professionals.

Having said this, it is only our side of the story and we on our own can only claim that we have imparted this much knowledge to the person who was seeking the knowledge and paid for it. The other side, that is, how much a person has become capable, has the person been ‘legitimized” to practice and how he or she might be able to perform depends primarily on an assessment that could and should be done by an independent assessor. Otherwise, we would be accused of spreading false certifications and later would become victims at the hand of these “Neem Hakeems” (half doctors).  

This is the same as a teacher teaches but a board prepares the exam for testing the knowledge on the given criteria. The doctors, engineers, finance professionals and for that matter any other professional prepares him/her self based on the given body of knowledge and then an assessment is done on some set standards to assess the capability of the student. How simple it would have been, if i teach a person something and later prepare the exams for that person and then test that person on my given paper and pass or fail him/her. If one passes i, provide him a paper or statement that “now you are certified”. Well, this is only HR and thank God not medicine. Had this case been also in medicine (which unfortunately according to our educational standards of medical education is not too far now)….we might be losing many good people too early because of wrong medical practices. Currently we are only losing souls, BTW through this HR practice.

Interestingly those of us who wish to gain international certifications and disturbed by the costs, use such means that are somehow (unfortunately) typical to this part of the world. Few students, join hands, after getting training and certification from a local certification program, getting the tricks of the game and start preparing for an international HR certification. They pay for only one log-in to the international body’s Learning Management System (LMS) and all share the same log-in to prepare for the exam. This is the same as you photocopy a writer’s book and distribute in your friends, whereas the writer stands to gain nothing. They indeed saving cost, do an act of sharing/caring and helping each other. At the same time I think they skip the “Ethical Practice” chapter from the certification they trying to accomplish. God Bless HR.

Sources of information used in this article:

Dovetail Partners Archived (2010) at the Wayback Machine

ANSI, Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspection According to ASME

NABL Certified Lab

Academic Degree Abbreviations

International Institute for Software Testing (IIST) CSTP & CTM Informational Home Page

“Indeed.com”, “College Transfer certification material”