Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I told Joe Welinsky the other day that I planned to avoid touching any "3rd rails" for a while in my candidate blogs, and here I am blogging about certification. But as Carol Barnum is fond of telling her students, "Writing is thinking." I believe blogging is a good way to sort out one's own thoughts while making yourself open to the influence of others. So here goes.

First of all, what is it?
Certification can mean a number of things. Some programs certify participants by having them go through a prescribed set of courses. PMI (Project Management Institute) is a good example of that model at the professional organization level. Others certify through regulatory examination, such as for CPAs. That model generates a lot of 3rd party training opportunities. The International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) certifies through inspection. Applicants submit a portfolio of artifacts and client endorsements that address specific areas of professional competency. I am familiar with that process first-hand, being a CPT (Certified Performance Technologist).

Certification differs by whom is being certified (programs or practitioners) and by who is doing the certification: commercial training organizations (such as WritersUA or HFI), academic institutions, or professional associations (Such as PMI and ISPI).

And certification can vary by professional status. Training organizations offer "certificates" to show completion of a workshop, and conferences offer "certification tracks" in specialized topics. Some academic institutions offer "certificates" as an academic credential that is bigger than a course but smaller than a diploma. Not all certifications are equal. In some cases, they warrant the recipients putting the certification as part of their professional title, as with CPA; in some cases they are cube decorations held up with push pins.

Cui bono?
As Cicero was famous for asking, "Who benefits?" A number of different stakeholders can benefit from certification programs. The most obvious in my mind is employers. Certification can be a yardstick by which to assess job applicants and by which to direct professional development among their current employees. Practitioners benefit by having an avenue for professional development that is compact and tailored toward working professionals. Professional societies benefit by having a value-add activity and revenue source. Lastly, academic institutions and training organizations can benefit by offering programs specifically aimed at certification.

So why haven't we done it?
We've been talking about certification for a long time and haven't done it as a profession. Does the fact that we haven't felt a serious enough need mean the idea lacks merit?

For one thing, the academic programs have been filling a significant portion of the need. Additionally, training vendors and conferences have also filled part of the need. And of course, the elephant in the room: the lack of an agreed-upon body of knowledge on which to base the certification criteria. (But I truly believe that elephant will be corralled in the next year or so.)

I personally think that the schools and training companies have successfully addressed entry-level certification. By that I mean that if someone were trying to get into technical communication, I would highly recommend any of the Masters or undergraduate programs I am familiar with. But what about the highly skilled and experienced professionals I work with, for example, who do not have a Masters degree? I'm not sure there is enough value in many of the programs for folks like that. Either their level is aimed at entry into the field, or their scope is too wide/too long for what many veteran practitioners need.

So what niche is not being met? I believe there could be an opportunity to certify "master technical communicators." By that I mean that STC could play a legitimate role that does not compete with its academic and vendor stakeholders by certifying when practitioners have reached a certain level of professional performance and knowledge.

Possible roles for STC in certification
STC is already in the business of peer recognition through its ranks of associate fellow and fellow. The criteria for these positions are aimed primarily at service to the profession, however, and not at performance within the professional requirements. I would recommend keeping the associate and fellow ranks exactly as they are, but we could have a certification rank, one whose criteria are based on professional achievement and standards of skills, knowledge, and performance.

We already have a method in place for handling one of the trickier aspects of that kind of certification: peer evaluation of job artifacts. We do that today through our publications competitions. We could incorporate competition achievement as part of a master technical communication certificate. Of course, that means we would have to make sure our competitions have a standard of rigor that is met, eventually requiring that certified master technical communicators be part of every chapter's competition oversight committee.

Another role for STC would be to offer training tracks and resources that could help toward advanced certification. But we need to be careful not to compete with academic programs and 3rd party training stakeholders who are doing a good job of meeting the needs of a large segment. Existing programs could be incorporated into the certification tracks where possible. Once again, however, if STC focused on master certification, I think there could be a legitimate niche there.

These are my current, somewhat un-vetted thoughts on a topic I will probably have to deal with over the next four years if elected. Please comment freely so that I understand the multiple perspectives on this topic.


Anonymous said...

The PMP certification is a valid comparison point for potential tech comm. certification. I’m close to being ready to take my PMP exam for certification under PMI. This is not the result of having taken any proscribed coursework. PMP certification is awarded based on some minimal experience in the field, some hours of education (unspecified by PMI: your HR department’s diversity training may even work), and achievement of a certain level on a test covering the PMBOK. I have taken no coursework directly related to project management, and I have never even read the PMBOK. However, I scored above 80% on some practice certification tests I took, based on many years managing projects within my role as a technical communicator. I am now studying PMBOK in preparation for the test, but my point is that sometimes experience can prepare you as well for certification as education/coursework. My advisors (who have been PMP certified for some time) assert that if you can regurgitate the PMBOK, you can pass the test and therefore be certified. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that passing the test in this way makes you a talented project manager. I would advocate that – like the PMP –a certification in technical communication would also have an experience component (minimal), an education component (very loosely defined and verified), and a test. I think STC’s role in all this could be the development of the criteria and the test. If STC will administer the program, they should be careful that the criteria are not self-serving. In other words, while it would be possible to use STC-related events toward the education credit, it should not be mandatory. In fact, attention should be paid to keeping mandatory costs (coursework) minimal, so that cost is not a barrier to achieving certification. I would also oppose using the competitions as a major or required component for certification. Not everyone has enough control over their own projects to have something to submit. What if you're developing content with 3 others for a single deliverable? Plus I don't believe that the competitions are capable of really judging the quality of documenation because they have no insight into the product, the timeline, or the user context. That’s my 2 cents.

One follow on thought: If you can pass the PMP test with zero studying (experience) and you can pass the test with almost nothing except studying the PMBOK (regurgitation), you have to wonder what the certification really stands for or guarantees. Managers should be wary of swallowing certification achievement whole.

Mike Hughes said...

Thanks for the clarification on how PMP certification works. Perhaps the Human Factors International model for their CUA (Certified Usability Analyst) is a better example of certification by course-work. Your comments were very helpful, thank you for responding.

Margaret said...

As a technical editor and writer with a 40-yr old B.S in Scientific Writing, years of experience in several industries, and hindsight on the proliferation of tools over the years, I have observed the clamor for and against the certification of technicial communicators rise and fall over the years. As Mike said, most of it has been aimed at the entry-level practitioners. What is more disturbing is to work on a project with someone who has been a "technical writer" for more than 10 years who is less competent than a lot of newbies.

I have ignored most of the certification debate, because most of the certification proposals offered nothing for experienced tech com professionals in my situation. What would certification offer us now? Would a masters degree or an MBA be more useful? Could I afford the time and cost to get one?

Mike's proposal of an STC certification for Master Technical Communication Professionals is the first proposal that makes sense to me. I plan to support his efforts within STC to promote it!

Mike Hughes said...

I agree with "anonymous" in that competition judging can be problematic as a criterion for certification. The criteria as they now stand are tool loose and inconsistent from chapter to chapter or even from year to year. Certification, however, could be an impetus to tighten down those criteria.