Thursday, December 08, 2005

Beyond certification

The recent discussion about professionalism in training has been interesting. I expected strongly held polarized views, but there actually seems to be a muddled sort of consensus that training is not a profession, nor does it really need to be, but it might benefit from having a body behind it with enough teeth to raise its profile and credibility.

Perhaps the semi-consensus is because those commenting, online and off, tend to be established veterans with battle-tested competence in the field. When you know that you are good at what you do, and have been doing it long enough to know you are not deluding yourself, you tend to look askance at outside bureaucracies that profess to be able to pass judgment on your worth. But you also tend to feel an undercurrent of frustration that many in your field, and most of those outside of it, have no idea what value you contribute and have no basis for making that evaluation. Enter certification.

The problem with certificates is that they are invariably pitched at the baseline, and seek to verify that their holder has an adequate grasp of essential fundamentals, at whatever level. Why, for example, would I put an inordinate amount of time any money into getting an NVQ4 (UK) when, at the end of the day, all I have is a piece of paper that verifies that I have done, to a certain standard, some of the things that any experienced trainer should be able to do? Certification says nothing about quality or richness of experience and does not measure or reflect all the fuzzy hard-to-quantify characteristics that distinguish a ‘seasoned professional’ from a rank beginner. It’s a great ‘elevator’ for those relatively new to the field, of course. And while neither experience nor certification guarantees quality, certification is seen by the risk-averse to be less open to interpretation.

Increasingly, employers and clients use certification as an expedient filter or differentiator in their selection process. Those recruiting trainers without having themselves much ability to tell Chateau Margaux from Beaujolais Nouveau find a certificate indispensable. There’s an irony in this, which is echoed in other fields: once certification becomes a requirement, employers can deny themselves access to best-of-breed performers whose time constraints (or egos) have prevented them from leaping through the requisite credentialing hoops. The more widespread and credible a particular certification becomes, the more pressure there is on trainers to acquire the relevant pieces of paper. The only route open to holdouts like me is to “get with the program” and trust that the cluster of credentials that one opts for will have lasting value.

Which is where the other side of professionalism becomes so important. If you have to become certified, would it not be a good idea to have a certification process that results in something of inherent value, rather than a token piece of paper that is useful only as a checkmark in a recruiting box? Though I have looked, I have yet to find such a program. The reason appears to be that there is no body of training professionals – none – that has the advancement of the profession at heart. Even if such an objective appears somewhere in their charter, it is not manifested in their behavior. It may be too much to hope for that any professional body could be anything more than a committee-hampered bureaucracy destined to put all of its efforts into resisting change and preserving the status quo. Dynamism and forward thinking are not characteristics that one associates with such organizations.

Yet here we are, at what I believe is a crossroads for the corporate training ‘profession’, facing diminishing relevance and possible extinction within a decade, without any organized way forward. What are entities such as ITOL, BLA or ASTD doing to help guide companies toward more effective learning strategies? More importantly, what are they doing to help trainers adapt for the chaotic future in which we have to thrive? Certifying that members know how to dress appropriately, design courses, and make presentations is hardly adequate (OK, I know that’s a gross oversimplification). A professional body should be taking a much more strategic view of the learning outputs sought by companies and the changing cultures and climates in which trainers operate. I don’t see that reflected in member education priorities, certification requirements, marketing activities for the profession, or topics under discussion at their various conferences. It pains me that we who are so committed to needs analyses, objective setting, process design, and continuous improvement accept such lackluster myopic thinking from those who claim to represent us.

I know of many who have abandoned the “training” label altogether because they feel constrained by the limited perceptions others have of trainers. I tend to describe my own role in terms much more specific to any project for the same reasons: performance improvement facilitator, for example, or organizational developer (without the capitals), or learning strategist. But these labels are themselves a little grotesque – I would far rather call myself a “trainer”, and would if the term connoted more than the narrow and old-fashioned concept that the profession has become trapped in.

It will take an in-touch, dynamic, and courageous professional body to change both the perception and the reality of what training is, and can be. Do we put 40,000 volts through one of the existing bodies and transform it into something useful, do we create yet another new body, or is it a case of everyone for themselves, certificates in hand?

Original in TrainingZONE Parkin Space column of 2 Dec 2005


gus said...

couldn,t agree with you more.I,m a 23 year apprentice trained lift tester who now finds himself having to prove what i do to a porsche driving yuppie who doesn,t know an elevator from an escalator. surely my timesheets are the only evidence i need!

mlk said...

Your post reminds me of the new trend in teaching: obtaining national certification via the NBPTS. (NCLB is also pushing for teachers to become rated as "highly qualified".)

From the NBPTS website:
"National Board Certification is a symbol of professional teaching excellence. A certificate will attest that a teacher was judged by his or her peers as one who is accomplished, makes sound professional judgments about students' best interests and acts effectively on those judgments. Offered on a voluntary basis, National Board Certification complements -but does not replace- state licensing. While state licensing systems set entry-level standards for novice teachers, National Board Certification establishes advanced standards for experienced teachers." This has become a way for teachers, even those with decades of experience, to be taken more seriously.

Although I am new to the field of corporate learning, an intermediate/advanced certification process, with "inherent value", would give professionals the direction, motivation, and tools to further their credibility in the corporate world.