Launching a Successful Certification ProgramAugust 1, 2014

August 1, 2014

Launching a Successful Certification Program

Peck,Chris-SmithBucklin-110x140Christine Murphy Peck is senior director, education and learning services at SmithBucklin, an association management and services company.

Professional workers are facing increasing job complexities and more demands on their knowledge base. Naturally, they are turning to their representative associations to provide education with demonstrated proof of learning. In short, they want certification.

In January, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report based on data collected in 2012 that showed more than 50 million U.S. adults had obtained a professional certification, license or certificate that was separate from an academic degree from a college or university. Among the findings:

  • 96 percent obtained a professional certification or license for work-related reasons, and the same percentage reported that the certification can be used to get a job with any employer in the field.
  • About three-quarters of these credentials were required for the current or most recent job.
  • The most common fields of certification were education (17 percent), nursing and nurse assisting (13 percent), and other medical or health care fields (12 percent).
  • More than 90 percent of professional certification and license holders took courses and had to demonstrate skills on the job or pass a test or exam in order to earn them.
  • About two-thirds of adults who held a professional certification or license had to take periodic tests or continuing education credits in order to maintain it.

Launching and maintaining a successful certification program is an endeavor that involves many years of commitment, countless volunteer and staff hours, subject-matter expert input and considerable cost. Yet, the results will have lasting impact on your members and your organization.

Invaluable Benefits

Certification provides credibility, signifying that professionals are competent in their respective fields and were successfully tested in specific subject matters. Through a structured continuing education program, certificants can document they have maintained their knowledge base in a given industry.

Certification provides credibility, signifying that professionals are competent in their respective fields and were successfully tested in specific subject matters. 

Accredited certification programs also help protect the public’s safety by ensuring that the commission members who grant the certifications are also currently certified and knowledgeable in that particular field and subject area.

For the organization, certifications offer options for a long-term revenue stream via certification preparation and continuing education offerings, and there is the potential for establishing a program approval process for organizations wishing to be recognized as continuing education providers.

One of SmithBucklin’s client organizations reports an average 10 percent increase of new certificants year to year (based on data from 2009 to 2012). Another client reports an increase of 20 percent since 2010.

Certification also impacts your members’ professional growth and development. One of our organizations reports that 27 percent of their certificants received a salary increase as a result of earning their credential. For another, achieving certification is part of the criteria for promotion among their military members.

A certification program touches all aspects of an organization. With a commitment to research, program development, policy and procedure establishment, and operations implementation, a certification program can be an extremely valuable asset to your organization by ensuring your members achieve professional status, recruiting and retaining members, and providing motivation for members to participate in your organization’s educational events.

So, how do these programs get started and what steps need to be taken to ensure a certification program’s success? What is the secret?

Establish the Objective

The first step is to determine the objectives of your certification program: Have you identified a gap in competency, service or knowledge in your industry that a new certification program can fill? Frame your objective around that need.

Such objectives could be to increase visibility, enhance the profession, establish an industry standard, denote levels of competence, or all of the above. Answering the “why” question is critical to guiding your future decisions.

Conduct Research

Successful program leaders test their concepts in the marketplace by determining audience, surveying members and their employers, analyzing the competition and reviewing potential models for the certification program.

First, you must determine your target market. Who would find value in a certification program provided by your organization? Who would pay for the training, certification examination and continuing education?

Plan surveys and focus group discussions with potential certificants. This should include your current members and industry professionals who would benefit from a certification program.

The “marketplace” includes identifying potential competitors. Who else is out there offering similar types of certification? How many of your members are currently certified by other organizations? Have they identified those certifications in your membership database?

Most important, this phase should connect with the people who employ your members. What value do employers see in certification in general? Do they prefer hiring certified candidates over noncertified? What certifications are they currently seeking in job candidates? How do they view a certification offered by your organization? Would your program provide a leg up for candidates?

This is also an excellent time to speak candidly with the leadership of related organizations who are not competitors but who have established successful certification programs in their own industries. Ask other organizations about the challenges they faced, how they overcame them, the benefits of their certification program and what they would do differently.

Program Development

Armed with the data, you can make your “go or no-go” decision. Don’t be in love with your own idea so much that you are tempted to overrule analysis that finds a certification program is not the right answer. You could potentially save your organization thousands of dollars that can be put toward another useful endeavor.

Still on the fence? If the intention is truly to benefit your members and the industry, then examine other possibilities. Consider pairing or partnering with another organization to provide content for a new program or sharing the expense of a combined program.

If your analysis favors a certification program that would add value to your members, their employers and market perspective, you should move forward with establishing the foundation of that future program.

One of the first steps should include determining if you want your program accredited by an external organization. This allows you to start mapping the structure of your program toward the accreditation requirements at the outset, rather than having to go back and restructure at a later date.

You’ll also want to engage the services of a testing vendor or a psychometrician. The process involves conducting a Job Task Analysis (JA or JTA) — defining what work or tasks your future certificants will need to complete and what competencies they should have to perform their jobs successfully. Then, you’ll develop a set of competencies, determine eligibility criteria and establish a databank of examination questions (called “items”), which you will use to build your exam.

Develop Policies and Procedures

Often left as an afterthought, a carefully and strategically developed set of policies is critical to the future success of any certification program. Here are some examples:

  • Several SmithBucklin client organizations require that a certain percentage of continuing education credits must come from the sponsoring organization or by an organization that is approved by the sponsoring organization. This enables the organizations to drive revenue through selling their own products and services as well as by approving other organizations (including their chapters or affiliates) to offer programs and provide continuing education credits — meaning they too will earn revenue from the event.
  • Another option is to grant members a certain percentage of continuing education credits from related organizations. This allows for partnership opportunities with like organizations and potential revenue-sharing opportunities.
  • We’ve also seen success in rewarding volunteer service with continuing education credits. Volunteering credits include serving on committees, writing articles for the organization’s journal or newsletter, writing test questions for the examination or presenting educational programs and webinars. All of these options lead to increased engagement in the organization and provide for a well-qualified cadre of volunteers.

SmithBucklin encourages its client organizations to take this entire certification process in steps and to commit for the long haul. Even if your research shows that a certification program may not be the best option, the discoveries you make along the way can help identify opportunities for new membership, products and services. Overall, undertaking a certification study often provides useful data for plotting the future direction of your organization.  AC&F

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