Setting Strategy for Certification’s New World

It’s tempting to jump right into the new ways to engage members in certification. But before you launch your digital badges and microcredentials, think about where your members are—and how long they’ll stick around.

Like most things in the association world, certification is undergoing a transformation. Gamification is a growing element of a member’s path to a credential. And there are now many more paths, as associations experiment with microcredentials and other formats that are more user-friendly for members with complicated lives.

I discuss a few examples of what this new terrain looks like in my feature on certification in the latest issue of Associations Now. For associations that are looking at certification for the first time, this can be an exciting moment with lots of opportunities to experiment, says consultant Mickie S. Rops, FASAE, CAE. “Among the groups that I’m helping now to consider credentialing, I’m seeing much more openness and eagerness to look at microcredentialing and nontraditional approaches,” she says.

Associations need to be determining what challenges the industry is facing that credentialing could actually impact.

The temptations to dive in are obvious: A certification establishes authority for an association’s industry, helps unify practitioners around a body of knowledge, and can be a substantial revenue driver. The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, for instance, saw its recertification rate spike from an average of 80 percent to 98 percent last year, after introducing NBCOT Navigator, an online game-based certification program.

But NBCOT wasn’t simply hopping on the bandwagon or creating a shiny object. NBCOT CEO Paul Grace, CAE, says the association had been testing the program since 2014 and that it rooted the program in a 2008 National Academy of Medicine report on the competencies that workers in fields like occupational therapy would need in the coming years.

That kind of due diligence doesn’t get enough attention when associations start talking about creating or retooling a certification program, Rops says. “I think the step that’s often missing—and it’s so obvious that it shouldn’t be missing—is associations need to be determining what challenges the industry is facing that credentialing could actually impact.”

In cases where an industry is relatively new, it may be enough for an association to first focus on education, rather than building a complex certification apparatus around it, she notes. That’s one of the virtues of smaller-scale tools like digital badges and microcredentials, where members demonstrate mastery of a subset of a topic without making a larger commitment.

That process is its own form of due diligence, giving associations critical data about what members do and don’t find valuable about its educational offerings. “You can start small with microcredentials,” she says. “Your market research is in beta-testing of those systems.”

One thing that market research might reveal is an echo of a broader workplace trend: Employees are spending less time in a single job, or even a career, which puts more pressure on an association to demonstrate the value of a certification.

Associations should ask, “is there a way to introduce people to a particular certification and see the value of it, and even if they are moving in and out of jobs, the value in renewing?” says Sara Meier, CAE, senior vice president for credentialing, standards, and professional development at MCI USA. “I think it comes down to telling the story of who has the certification, how they’ve used it, and why they continue to retain it.”

Which is to say that if you’re strategizing around a certification you already have, don’t tweak things so much that you erase the brand equity you’ve long established. The substantial authoritative certification hasn’t gone away, Rops stresses.

“I think that those types of designations may remain,” she says. “I think that what’s going to change are the multiple pathways in which to get them, and/or those [pathways] come down lower. You can have microcredentials leading to a credential, or add value on top of a credential. Certifications are going to remain, they’re just not going to be in the same form.”

Have you launched or recently retooled a credentialing program? What process did you establish for determining its structure? Share your experiences in the comments.

(Aslan Alphan/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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