I recently worked on designing a certificate toolkit for our members to help them market learning within their organizations. As I worked through the quick guide and designed a very nice (I may be biased there) certificate template, it got me thinking about the validity of these certificates. For some learners, getting a certificate is really important and gives them a sense of accomplishment, but do we switch their focus from capacity building to stamp collecting?
Instead of saying ‘I think therefore I am,’ we seem to have developed the phrase ‘I am certified therefore I can’. But how true is this, and how can we use certificates to better reflect reality? This is important for learners, as well as managers who will want to see these certificates. What makes a certificate a certification?
Let’s take the classic example of management training. If I were to take some courses online am I capable of being a manager? Or do I simply have the foundational knowledge of management? If my ultimate goal is to become a manager, does certifying me in a management course mean I have reached this goal?
L&D beware: are we enabling this mind-set and in effect responsible for potentially having a lot of ineffective managers? It’s true that I want recognition for the knowledge I have gained in management, but what’s my next step in becoming that great manager I want to be?
Project management training seems to have grasped this a lot better. PMD Pro has two levels. The first certificate recognises the knowledge you have gained, and the second takes it that next step towards demonstrating this knowledge in a practical way. Using these levels also helps recruiters: if they are presented with a Level 1 certificate then they are more likely to either employ them as part of a project management team or at least understand that they will need more intense supervision. Show them Level 2, and the role of project manager is in reach.
Using this approach also helps the learner to know what will be most applicable to them. If they are simply taking part in a project, then Level 1 will be a great asset. If they are going to be managing a project, then Level 2 is a must.
Think about the way in which we run our training programmes. If we truly want to encourage development in staff, and offer recognition of this, we will need to consider offering them levels to work through. And also think about what will help them to achieve each level.
The 3–level certification approach
Foundation – This will recognise a basic knowledge of the subject. It is important to include the essential principles and theories of the subject and can consist of mainly online/classroom training with the possibility of some additional reading and videos.
Advanced – Add in some more advanced knowledge in the area. Whilst it will still be mainly theoretical, I would begin to encourage a community engagement aspect. Start to build in discussion groups for those at the advanced level. Encourage them to challenge what they have learnt. This will help to not only demonstrate that they have gained the knowledge but that they have a deeper understanding.
Practitioner – Apply this level to a select group. This is where a truly blended approach will come into play as well as investment from their supervisor. They will need to be given the opportunity to practically apply what they have learnt and adapt based on feedback. Mentoring may also be an option. Completion of this level will be based around time and experience gained.
By taking this three level approach you are not only addressing staff development but also building a more comprehensive talent management process – something that we buzz about but struggle to make a reality.
Designing your certificates
The design of your certificates is essential to acknowledging the level they have reached.
Brand the certificates but ensure that each level is unique in its theme – try changing the colour or adding in a unique stamp for each level. More importantly, keep the level identifiers the same across multiple programmes. Whether management or finance the stamp or colour should remain the same so it adds more consistency to your development approach. This will also make the types of certificates more recognisable. Whether running track or disc throwing, I know my medal will always be bronze, silver or gold!
Recognising single course completion is still important
My final reflections are not to rule out certificates for completion. Using levelled approaches can build a certification programme that recognises level of skill. Providing a certificate to recognise a single completed course or module brings joy. That certificate can have a bigger impact on staff than we realise – whether showing we value their achievement, showcasing to others what they can also have, or validating hard work.
And remember, be mindful of countries where state or ‘normal’ education standards are low. Certificates have a higher value than in countries where formal recognition for schooling is a given and access to higher education is the norm.
Recognise single achievements… but help them strive for more!