Perspective

Fact-based, but personal opinion/perspective

Misconceptions about Certification

There seems to be wide misconceptions about what “Certification” and “Licensure” are all about.  Some see it as just the final part of an educational regimen.  Other’s see it as some kind of hurdle imposed by greedy organizations restricting access to some benefit.  These misconceptions and skewed perspectives, lead them to make demands affecting the very heart of what certification is all about and minimizing the value of the very certification they are working to achieve. First:

What Certification IS …

Certification is a legally defined classification stating a certifying body stands behind the capability of a certified individual to perform at some specific level of capability.  Certification is a very simple construct: it is the definition of a standard of performance, and a program assessing individuals to that standard.  That’s it, nothing more and nothing less.

Setting a standard is the first part of any certification.  Ideally, this standard is defined with help of people who perform the job.  In addition, a standard implies that everyone, no matter whether they have done the actual job for decades or participated in the development of the standard itself, must objectively demonstrate their capability in exactly the same manner.  Unless this standard is objectively applied equally to all individuals, it is not a standard.  Maintaining that standard is the foundation of certification value; it is what the certification stands for and how it should be used.

Creating an assessment of that standard is the second part of any certification.  This not only includes a mechanism assessing current capability, but also a program or process to ensure future capability.   Despite what many believe, creating an assessment is not a simple, ad hoc process where someone creates an assessment (test) and makes people take it to prove their ability.  It is, in fact, a highly rigours process backed by decades of scientific research on measuring cognitive ability (psychometrics), the sole purpose of which is ensuring the validity of the decisions made based on assessment performance.  It involves designing the assessment, job-task analysis of the job being assessed, formalized standards of item (question) writing, public beta-testing of items, psychometric evaluation of the item performance, assessment construction, and evaluation of appropriate scoring.  Done properly, it is time-consuming and costly (which is why some organizations don’t do it properly).

Finally, because knowledge and competence are perishable commodities, mechanisms must be put in place ensuring certified individuals remain capable in the future.  This is frequently done by limiting the length of time a certification is valid and requiring periodic re-certification (re-validation) of the individuals capability.  Other methods may include proving continued education and practice of the knowledge.  Regardless, the ongoing evaluation of certified individuals must adhere to the original standard with the same validity, or the standard no longer has value.

There is no hidden agenda to certification.  There is no conspiracy.  It is simply to establish a standard and assess individuals compared to that standard.

Misconceptions about Certification

Really, any belief beyond the design of a standard and the assessment to that standard, is a misconception about certification.  However, there are a number of misconceptions that often drive changes detrimental to the rationale of certification.  The most common ones relate to understanding what an assessment is for, training, and re-certification requirements.

Most people mistakenly assume the items within an assessment must represent the end-all-be-all of what someone should know.  They don’t understand that a psychometric assessment is not about the answers themselves, but the inferences we can make about performance based on those answers.  There is no way to develop an exhaustive exam of all the knowledge necessary to be competent and to deliver that exam efficiently.  However, we can survey a person’s knowledge and through statistical analysis infer whether they have all the knowledge necessary or not.  The answer to any specific question is less important than how answering that question correlates with competence.  Even a poorly written, incomplete, and inaccurate item can give us information about real world performance; in fact, evaluating how a candidate responds to such an item can be highly informative (although this is not a standard, intentional practice).  This focus on the items themselves, rather than the knowledge and competence the answers suggest, is what makes people incorrectly question the validity of the certification.

Similarly, many people think a certification should be able to be specifically taught.  As such, they believe a training course should be all that is necessary to achieve a certification.  However, this does not align with what we know about the development of human competence.  There is a big difference between knowing something, and knowing how to apply that knowledge competently.  Certification is an assessment of performance, not knowledge; and, as such, cannot be taught directly.  If someone can take a class and immediately achieve certification, either: A) the assessment does not evaluate actual performance; or, B) the course simply teaches the answers to the questions on the exam, rather than the full domain of knowledge.  In either case, you have biased the inferences made by the assessment.  Competence begins with knowledge, but must also have experience and practice.  This cannot be gained through a class, but only through concerted effort; you cannot buy competence.

Finally, many people also believe that once a certification has been achieved, it shouldn’t need to ever be evaluated again; or, that taking a course instead of an assessment should suffice.  The former belief simply ignores the fact performance capability is a perishable commodity: if you don’t use it, you lose it.  The latter once again confuses knowledge with performance.  How frequently this needs to happen, or whether continued education is sufficient to demonstrate continued performance is entirely dependent on the knowledge domain the certification attempts to assess.  In highly dynamic environments, this may need to be done much more frequently and rely more on assessments than in other domains; however, ongoing evidence of continued capability is a must if standards are to be maintained.

Leave Certification to the Professionals

The heart of the problem is that everyone seems to believe they are experts in the design of certification programs and assessments simply because they have participated in them.  The reality is that certification is a rigorous, research-based, and scientific endeavor.  The minimum requirement to be considered a psychometrician is a PhD; that’s a great deal of specialized knowledge most people do not have.  The decisions made are not arbitrary, nor are they made with the intention of anything other than maintaining the standard and making valid assessments of individuals according to that standard.

At the end of the day, the value of a certification is whether the people who achieve it can perform according to the standard the certification set forth.  If the certification cannot guarantee that, then it is not valid and has no value.  However, this requires people to actually understand what that standard is, what it means, and why it was created.   It requires people to accept there is a rigorous process accounting for all of the decisions and those decisions all support validity.  Finally, it requires people to understand that just because they may be experts in their field, they are not experts in certification.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why you want to, but won’t, hire a Versatilist

The quality of an organization’s human capital is more important today than at any time before.  Global, dynamic markets eradicate the competitive advantages of capital, equipment, and land (Drucker, 1992; Friedman, 2006; Hayton, 2005; Teece, 2011).  Today, differentiation comes from combining undifferentiated inputs and resources in unique ways (Dutta, 2012; Reeves & Deimler, 2011; Teece, 2007, 2011, 2012; Teece, Pisano, & Shuen, 1997). As such, the source of competitive differentiation and strategic value is not having superior resources, but the skill and knowledge necessary to innovate.  One way to describe this organizational ability is dynamic capabilities (Teece, 2012). Dynamic capabilities characterize the organizational ability to sense and seize new opportunities and transform the organization, maintaining a competitive position.  Organizations with strong dynamic capabilities change and adapt to dynamic markets, are strong innovators, and build lasting strategic differentiation.  The only place this knowledge and skill resides is within the individuals working for the organization: human capital (Blair, 2002; Ployhart, Nyberg, Reilly, & Maltarich, 2014).

If we take the notion of dynamic capabilities and apply it to a person, instead of an organization, you get versatilists.  Versatilists are wired to sense and seize new opportunities, leverage new skills and abilities, and innovate who and what they are.  They are always changing and adapting to the world around them to become experts in new areas.  They don’t have access to different knowledge or methods of learning than other people, but they combine them in new ways to create new versions of themselves.  If organizations need dynamic capabilities to innovate and be successful, who better than versatilists to drive that effort.  This is why organizations should identify and recruit versatilists as employees.

Unfortunately, current recruiting and hiring strategies are ill aligned to this goal. Just look at your average Sr. level job description: 5 -7 years doing one thing with 10+ years in the same industry, with the same focus; another: 10 years in this job role, plus 5 years in specific industry. The job descriptions go on to list several dozen areas of knowledge and experience necessary to be considered a good fit.  These descriptions will use terms like “successful track record of”, “expertise in”, and “demonstrated experience with”. While this likely doesn’t sound out of place to many, especially those in HR and recruiting, it puts the job in a nice, little box tied with a bow.  The versatilists will rarely look twice for a couple of reasons.

First off, after 5-7 years doing the same thing, most versatilists are ready for the next challenge, not the next opportunity to do the same thing. The industry experience is less of an issue (although it’s still a bad way to get new ideas into your organization).  Versatilists don’t just adapt and change because of external forces; we’re not forced to go down a different path. We choose to do new things in new ways. There is an internal drive to know more, to do more, and to do it better.  Once a versatilists has become an expert in a role, we see little opportunity for growth, either personal or professional, and are naturally attracted to the next opportunity.

Second, unlike a generalist who tends to oversell their experience, versatilists, having become experts, generally undersell.  This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action (Dunning, Johnson, Ehrlinger, & Kruger, 2003; Kruger & Dunning, 1999).  According to this research, people tend to estimate their knowledge on any topic as at, or slightly above average.  Those with the least amount of actual knowledge overestimate grossly what they know (and don’t know they are doing it).  However, this works with experts as well, who underestimate their knowledge by assuming it is also just at, or slightly above average (this is sometimes referred to as imposter syndrome).  Because versatilists become experts in each of their chosen areas, even if you ask for “expertise” in that specific area, they will not feel qualified generally. This is further compounded when the job description suggests the candidate should be competent in dozens of areas.

Consequently, organizations limit their ability to hire versatilists the minute they draft a job description, making themselves unattractive to the very human capital they should really want.  Organizations cannot become innovative or develop dynamic capabilities, and yet hire based on check boxes and job descriptions of what the job has always been.  Instead, organizations should be hiring the people that can adapt and change the job to what it needs to be tomorrow.  Unless you change the way you recruit and hire, you’re more likely to hire someone without the skills you thought you needed and no capacity to develop the skills you really need.

 

References

Blair, D. C. (2002). Knowledge Management: Hype, Hope, or Help? Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 53(12), 1019–1028.

Drucker, P. F. (1992). The post-capitalist world. Public Interest, 109(Fall 1992), 89–101. Retrieved from http://www.nationalaffairs.com/

Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83–87. http://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.01235

Dutta, S. K. (2012). Dynamic capabilities: Fostering ambidexterity. SCMS Journal of Indian Management, 9(2), 81–91. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/

Friedman, T. L. (2006). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Hayton, J. C. (2005). Competing in the new economy: the effect of intellectual capital on corporate entrepreneurship in high-technology new ventures. R&D Management, 35(2), 137–155. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9310.2005.00379.x

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It : How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated. Journal of Personnality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134. http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121

Ployhart, R. E., Nyberg, A. J., Reilly, G., & Maltarich, M. a. (2014). Human capital Is dead; Long live human capital resources! Journal of Management, 40(2), 371–398. http://doi.org/10.1177/0149206313512152

Reeves, M., & Deimler, M. (2011). Adaptability: The new competitive advantage. Harvard Business Review, 89(7/8), 134–141. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/

Teece, D. J. (2007). Explicating dynamic capabilities: the nature and microfoundations of (sustainable) enterprise performance. Strategic Management Journal, 28(13), 1319–1350. http://doi.org/10.1002/smj.640

Teece, D. J. (2011). Dynamic capabilities: A guide for managers. Ivey Business Journal Online, 1. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/

Teece, D. J. (2012). Dynamic Capabilities: Routines versus entrepreneurial action. Journal of Management Studies, 49(8), 1395–1401. Retrieved from 10.1111/j.1467-6486.2012.01080.x

Teece, D. J., Pisano, G., & Shuen, A. (1997). Dynamic capabilities and strategic management. Strategic Management Journal, 18(7), 509–533. http://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-7506-7088-3.50009-7

Becoming the versatilist

A “versatilist” is someone who can be a specialist for a particular discipline, while at the same time be able to change to another role with the same ease (Wikipedia).  I first became aware of the term while researching my dissertation in the book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Friedman, 2005) and the term was first applied to me by a fellow scholar during doctoral studies.   I had always considered myself a generalist, not the guy you want to hire to do the job itself, but the guy you wanted to help plan, create, and innovate using a vast background of disparate knowledge and experience.

So, what is the difference between a “generalist” and a “versatilist”?  I think the difference is the degree of competency within each domain of knowledge.  A generalist has experience or is familiar with the various domains of knowledge they have, while a versatilist becomes an expert (albeit briefly) in each domain they pursue.  Generalists are philanderers in a sense, never truly committing to any particular domain of knowledge and content with superficial awareness; versatilist are serial monogamists, committing deeply to each domain with passion and intensity, but never staying for the long-haul to make a career of it.

This perspective certainly makes my varied career history a lot more understandable, explaining how I have achieved success in each of my roles, but never staying long enough to truly define what I do or give any clues as to what I want to be when I grow up.

1980’s

  • computer nerd, basic/pascal programming for fun and profit
  • DOS expertise

1990’s

  • DEC MINI administrator
  • Associates Degree in Electronics Technologies
  • Component-level repair of IBM mainframe logic boards and POS systems
  • Achieved Novell CNE and Microsoft MCSE
  • Independent Small Business technology consultant (design, sell, install hybrid LANs) specializing in “Internet Connectivity”
  • Started installing first wireless networks / fiber optic solutions
  • Achieved CCNA/P, Network+ certifications
  • Fortune 100 Retailer “eCommerce” team building “new” web architectures

2000’s

  • Field Service Engineer for technology manufacturer
  • Achieved CISSP, C|EH and CCE security certifications
  • Independent computer forensics consultant
  • Security Architect for technology manufacturer
  • Technical Marketing Manager for technology manufacturer
  • Completed Bachelor’s in Information Technology
  • Manager Technical Marketing

2010’s

  • Completed MBA (IT Management)
  • Corporate Press/Analyst Spokesperson
  • Manager of Professional Certification for technology manufacturer
  • Completed DBA (Strategy and Innovation)
  • Begin Data Science training

At each point in time, I was committed to being the best “whatever” I could, applying all my passion and effort towards achieving competence.  Yet, once I could consider myself an expert in that endeavor, I moved to the next thing, generally not looking back.  I’ve programmed, but am not a programmer.  I’ve been a systems administrator, but don’t do systems administration.  I’ve written numerous articles, whitepapers, and academic papers, but am not a writer.  I’ve done many things, but don’t feel that any of them define who I am or what I do.

The only moniker that makes sense is . . . I’m a Virsatilist.