2020 served as a new Renaissance for learning & development. But like all periods of great expansion, there are opportunists whose efforts degrade the field, rather than improve it.
This article is part two of three series that addresses best practices if you are developing and delivering credentialed solutions for professionals, and what to watch for if you are seeking professional development. Part one discussed “Point & Click Credentials” highlighting the difference between a certification and a certificate program. Part two will discuss the quality standards to which credible certification bodies adhere.
A couple of years ago I posted an article titled, Make sure your certification passes the “SMEL” test, which discussed the questions one should ask about any credential. As Part one discussed, not all credentials are created equal, and there are lots and lots of opportunists who exploit consumer and professional demand for credibility and expertise.
With the abundance of options out there, especially in the financial services field, how do you know which certifications are good, and which are bad?
S = Standards. Does the certification body apply rigorous standards to earn the credential, and does it, in turn, meet accreditation standards itself? This will be the focus of this article.
M = More designees does not always mean a “better” program. Unfortunately, most journalists when writing a piece on “which designation should you choose”, look for the designations that have the most people, rather than the programs which do the best job in certifying professionals.
E = Could be “The Four E’s”: Experience, Education, Ethics, and Examination. But most certifiers would argue that the MOST important “E” is the examination. We’ll talk more about exams in the next article in this series.
L = Individuals should LOSE the designation when they fail to meet ethics or ongoing requirements. This is a primary difference between a certification and a designation. Any MBA grad can list those three letters after their name as a designation, and even if they consistently ruin one company after another, they can still put MBA after their name.
Quality Standards for Certification Bodies
Just as individuals are certified, institutions are accredited.
None of us would whisk our children off to universities that weren’t accredited. If you had to choose between a nursing home that meets accreditation standards vs. one that doesn’t, I presume you would prefer to send your mother to the accredited institution. So why would we send our employees through non-accredited certification programs?
In the U.S., two primary entities set standards for personnel certifiers: the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and the ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB). Both agencies accredit certification programs that consistently and objectively qualify professionals who meet a given level of competency from those who do not. More than 5.2 million people worldwide hold a certification from an ANAB-accredited organization.
As one of those ANAB-accredited organizations, the Investments & Wealth Institute operates our certifications using ANAB standards as a “best-practices” guide, even though we haven’t completed the accreditation process for all of our certification programs.
Step one: Apply Best Practices
Not all certifications can or should jump straight to an accreditation application with ANSI or NCCA. The first step is always to apply best practices to your certification scheme. Once your program operates the way it should, then the next step is to bring in an outside NGO like ANSI or NCCA to assess whether your program meets its standards.
The following principles should serve as a guide to best practices and will make the path to accreditation easier.
- Independence: Certification standards (like exam pass rates) should be driven by business interests. The governing entity that sets, monitors, and enforces certification requirements should not be structured to ensure the objectivity of its certification activities. Personally, I don’t see how for-profit entities can meet this standard effectively, but many do – and the primary way they accomplish this is by establishing a standards oversight board (or committee or commission) that has the autonomy to set and enforce certification standards.
- Impartiality: Decisions to certify individuals should be made in a completely fair and impartial manner, and be free of bias. Competence in a field or profession can be conveyed regardless of race, gender, creed, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or any other class distinction. In my humble opinion, that’s what makes a valid, reliable, quality certification so valuable to businesses and society.
- Consistency: All certification requirements (education, experience, ethics, and examinations) should be based on a job analysis of the field or profession you are certifying. Also, a quality recertification process is the defining characteristic of certification – that one must continually meet standards to be certified. The main goal of certification should be consistency – that the designation mark you put after your name represents an equivalent standard wherever and however it was earned.
- Accountability: Certifiers should apply an objective and fair peer-review process when addressing unethical or incompetent behavior. If someone violates the Code of Ethics, or runs afoul of regulation, or commits a crime, rights to use the certification marks should be terminated or suspended, or other disciplinary action should occur.
- Sound Management: Systems should be in place to ensure continual improvement of the certification program and the stability of the certifying body. Also, nobody wants to spend the time, energy, and money to earn a certification from an organization that won't be around in the future. Another reason I distrust for-profit certifying bodies, is that certifications are not generally profitable, and for-profit entities are prone to sell off assets or be acquired by other firms, and then all programs hit the chopping block.
Step one: Earn Accredited Status
Once you can show that your certification program consistently applies best practices, it’s time to apply for accreditation. We chose ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB) because we felt it represented a higher standard and a more rigorous process of accreditation than other accreditation standards like the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA). For example, ANAB accreditation involves not only a review of submitted materials but also a site visit to better ensure compliance with the requirements. Also, ANAB represents an American national standard as well as an international (ISO/IEC 17024) standard, helping us to provide international markets with assurance that our CIMA certification program meets global standards for personnel certifiers. Finally, ANAB has a historical track record of successfully conducting accreditation of certification programs drawn from different industrial sectors, from non-profits, large multi-national corporations, and government agencies.
Certifications are incredibly useful to the public, to employers, to regulators, and to the media in helping to identify which practitioners in a field are competent, ethical professionals, who have gone above and beyond whatever regulatory or licenses are required by law to practice within that field. Professionals who earn voluntary certifications have differentiated themselves from the pack.
The same can be said about those certification programs that operate in a field crowded with options. But it shouldn't require one to become a certification expert. Non-Governmental Organizations like ANAB and NCCA Standards can do the job quite nicely, and provide quality assurance that the certifications earned by the professionals in a given occupation are impartial, rigorous, and consistently applied.
Several years ago, as part of my duties as CEO of the Investments & Wealth Institute, I visited with regulators from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA). For many years FINRA has maintained a directory of professional designations for the public. After our visit and a conversation much like this article, they set up a sub-listing of those designation programs that were accredited by ANAB or NCCA. You can find this listing today, and it is growing with new certification programs within the financial services industry that have voluntarily committed to best practices standards for certifiers, and then applied for - and earned - accredited status.
Part Three of this series will examine how the Institute develops and delivers a legally defensible certification exam, even during times when delivering examinations via "brick-and-mortar" testing centers may not be possible. It will also explore what the explosion of online-proctored exams means for the testing industry, and for the certification world at large.
In case you didn't read the first installment of this three-part series, on the differences between certifications and certificate programs, you can find it here.
Sean Walters is Chief Executive Officer of the Investments & Wealth Institute®. Sean has been active in association management since 1990, with financial services associations since 1997. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona with a B.A. in History, and he holds a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Indianapolis. Sean is a Certified Association Executive (CAE) certificant and has earned the Institute of Organization Management (IOM) designation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.