Lessons From a Certification Overhaul

SHRM's shift to a new certification model points to associations' need to better understand their members—and the people their members serve.

Five years ago, the Society for Human Resource Management took a gamble: It decided to shift its certification exam from a knowledge-based model to a competency-based one. Competency-based exams can be complicated to create and administer—they test critical-thinking skills around scenarios, not just straightforward textbook knowledge—and the move roiled some in the HR community back in 2014.

Matters got to the point where SHRM’s then-board chair, Bette Francis, delivered a statement to members clarifying the association’s need to develop “a more robust assessment tool to enhance performance and the standing of the HR profession.”

More often than not, where we focus too heavily is on people who do the job as opposed to people who are recipients of the service that profession offers.

A few years can alleviate some anxiety, and today SHRM’s membership seems to have adjusted. According to Alexander Alonso, SHRM’s chief knowledge officer, 135,000 people have been certified or held the credential in the five years since the new credential launched. And those who have it attribute their professional success to the credential.

“We do a study annually that looks at the outcomes when they employ someone who is a certified professional as well as somebody who is earning that credential, and we’ve seen a correlated increase in annual salary,” he says. “And nearly 62 percent of those who earn a promotion since earning the credential attributed it in some way to their development through the earning of the credential.”

The move is meaningful to employers as well, Alonso says, because they’re increasingly looking for employees who manifest the critical-thinking skills that a competency-based certification is designed to assess. “What we’ve seen is that people skills, leadership-oriented skills, the skills that have to do with asking the right kind of questions when faced with a problem—all of those are the ones that stand out that make somebody a preferred teammate.”

And the change has been a boon for SHRM internally: Alonso cites a boost in book purchases, event attendance, and chapter engagement correlated to participation in the certification program. Perhaps just as important, the shift has provided a focus around which SHRM has developed much of its programming.

“While switching to a competency-based approach certainly is more exhaustive and is a bit more intense in terms of development, whether it be for the credentialing exams or for some of our offerings, it helps us unify what we draw all of our potential offerings from,” he says.

All of this suggests to Alonso that SHRM was “40 years overdue” in implementing the new certification model. But he cautions patience and close study to any association leader who wants to undertake a similar retooling. The first question to ask: Who is the primary beneficiary of the certification? Hint: It’s not necessarily the member.

“You need to understand what the constituents of your profession really look for,” he says. “I think that more often than not, where we focus too heavily is on people who do the job as opposed to people who are recipients of the service that profession offers.”

Second, don’t create a framework that attempts to capture every member in your association’s orbit. (SHRM’s covers mid- and senior-level professionals.) “It’s frightening how many people try to boil the ocean and create basically a framework that is unwieldy and applies to every single person that has ever held a job with the title that you’re looking for in that profession,” Alonso says.

Lastly, think about the message you send to potential certificants. And that’s bigger than a change to a certification model. “A lot of people focus on new features and what’s different,” he says. “But what I always advise people to think about is: How would this certification make the individual who pursues it more relevant to the world?”

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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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