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Certification and Certificate Programs are NOT the same

Last week, the managing editor at one of the Websites that I write for sent me a CompTIA press release about an executive certificate program, and asked me to opine on the worth and utility of its "credentials." I was forced to respond that certificate and certification programs are not the same, and then, of course, to explain why. Here's the gist of my explanation, thinking that readers here may find this discussion interesting.

The certificate program under consideration is called an "Executive Certificate Program," and was launched by CompTIA at their Breakaway conference in Las Vega on July 30. The program offers courses on the following topics:

• Cloud Computing (Foundations and Intermediate)
• Data Recovery and Business Continuity
• Healthcare IT
• IT Security
• Mobility
• Social Strategies
• Unified Communications

To earn a certificate, attendees must complete the one-day workshop class associated with their subject area (two different levels are offered for cloud computing), and then pass an "assessment." Alternatively, candidates may earn a certificate "over a period of time by attending segmented courses" -- and presumably, also passing the same assessment as associated with the one-day workshop classes.

So, how does this differ from an out-and-out IT certification? In lots of ways, actually. To begin with, most modern and well-recognized IT cert programs seek accreditation under ISO/IEC standard 17024:2003 which seeks to normalize and standardize programs that certify individual competencies in specific subject areas and job activities.

This standard covers the following areas, all of which are highly relevant to creating and maintaining high-quality individual certifications:

  • how what is examined gets defined (various competencies)
  • knowledge, skills, and personal attributes that the certification seeks to discover and validate
  • independent unbiased examination processes
  • establishing that an examination is a valid test for the various competencies tested for

Anybody can put together a curriculum, and can choose whether or not to include any testing whatsoever, and then proceed to issue a certificate based on meeting the criteria established for that curriculum. That's what CompTIA is doing for its Executive Certificate Program.

But there's a lot more involved in putting a formal certification program together. It has to begin with interviews with subject matter experts, and job task analyses designed to elicit information about important skills and knowledge necessary to undertake certain on-the-job tasks and activities, or to fill specific roles in the workplace.

From there, it proceeds through a process of vetting and analysis that involves cataloging exam objectives, writing question items to cover those objectives, and then testing the heck of out the questions on sample audiences to see which ones truly separate those with the necessary skills and knowledge to do some kind of job. If this is hard to grasp, realize that questions that are too easy are just like questions that are too hard: if everybody gets them right, or nobody can answer them, they tell you exactly nothing about the population you're trying to survey, nor does it show you how any specific test subject stacks up against that population. Thus, it's the questions that some people can answer but others cannot that prove most telling in separating those who know enough to do a job from those who do not.

Then, too, there's a need to keep skills and knowledge current, and to make sure that a current certification credential matches up with current workplace requirements for skills and knowledge. If you'll recall, January 1, 2012, marked the date when CompTIA certs were no longer "for life" but would now need to be refreshed at a regular 3-year interval. Why did CompTIA do this? So its credentials could meet the ISO/IEC 17024 standard, as it relates to currency and relevancy for its holders.

I could go on, but I imagine you get the idea. There's a lot more to building and maintaining a real and serious certification program than might meet the eye. And that's really why certificate programs and certification programs have much less in common than you might think or imagine.