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Performance-Based Certification, includes a Microsft Word Diskette: How to Design a Valid, Defensible, Cost-Effective Program

Performance-Based Certification, includes a Microsft Word Diskette: How to Design a Valid, Defensible, Cost-Effective Program

by Judith Hale

Are your employees qualified?

Looking for qualified people to do competent work? How do you ensure that the people you hire can do the job right? An ever-increasing number of organizations are asking the same questions.

Certification planning is the answer and Performance-Based Certification is the key. This is the only book on the market that addresses the


Are your employees qualified?

Looking for qualified people to do competent work? How do you ensure that the people you hire can do the job right? An ever-increasing number of organizations are asking the same questions.

Certification planning is the answer and Performance-Based Certification is the key. This is the only book on the market that addresses the growing need to monitor the qualifications of employees. You'll be able to quickly customize the certification tests and other job aids provided on the accompanying disk.

Create a certification program within your organization to:

  • Instill confidence that employees, members, or suppliers are qualified to meet the needs of your customers
  • Ensure that your workforce is trained and competent to their job
  • Make your hiring process more cost effective and legally defendable
  • Recognize competence and consistency of your employees

Once you've identified the need for a certification program, what's the next step? All of the answers are here!

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Chapter 3 alone is worth the price of the book. The standard has now been set for performance-based certification." (Roger Kaufman, Professor and Director, Office for Needs Assessment & Planning, Florida State University and Research Professor of Engineering Management, Old Dominion University. Also, Principal, Roger Kaufman & Associates.)

"I am very impressed....simple and straight forward with excellent examples of how to address the issues." (Terry Schmitz, president, Conover Inc.)

A book/disk package for creating a certification program within an organization. Uses explanations, examples, and guidelines to describe how to design program elements of a certification program, such as requirements and administrative practices, and discusses many related issues, including defining and assessing competence. Of interest to human resource and training professionals, consultants, and managers. An accompanying disk contains customizable certification tests and other aids. The author is president of a consulting firm. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Read an Excerpt

The Driver

The driver is the impetus behind an organization's decision to become involved in certification. Some certifications are created in response to an event, like a lawsuit or the loss of a major customer. Others are implemented to gain a competitive advantage or to prevent employee disputes by helping managers make better personnel decisions. Many certification programs are the result of external pressures on organizations to ensure that their people perform to standard. It's important to be clear and in agreement on just what the driver is, because the driver is the platform on which everything else to do with the certification program will be based. The driver shapes the program's design and determines the requirements candidates must satisfy to earn the credential. The design, in turn, determines what the program will cost to implement and maintain. The driver also provides the criteria against which the program will be evaluated and revised.

One of your first tasks in designing a certification program, then, is to find out if there is a valid driver-a problem worth solving-for it and if a certification program is indeed the appropriate solution. Based on that information, you can design the certification program so that it will fulfill stakeholder expectations. Once the program is designed, you can plan how it will be managed, marketed, and implemented so that it will continue to add value to the organization.

Why Organizations Certify

The main driver behind organizations' either adopting an external certification or developing their own is to protect the safety, health, and welfare of their workers or the public. Examples of external certifications include those offered by the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, the American Board of Industrial Hygiene, and the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics. Both external and internal certifications force organizations to be more disciplined in confirming that their people have or can get the knowledge and skills required to do their jobs safely, efficiently, and effectively. Other reasons organizations implement certification programs are to enhance the stature of a role or position, to promote continuous improvement, to increase productivity, and to maintain employee skills and knowledge.

These reasons focus attention on recognizing people's accomplishments and improving organizations' work processes. Some certifications are created because there is a market for them-that is, there are enough people who will seek the designation that it becomes profitable for an organization to offer it. Indeed, the driver behind most certifications is economic, whether this fact is stated or not. Businesses want to leverage their investments in research and development and in training and technology, and they want to reduce or avoid unnecessary costs. Recently, many companies have sought to protect and enhance their investments in redesigning processes, outsourcing noncore functions, expanding globally, and automating tasks to increase productivity. As a result, more organizations are turning to certification programs as a way to help them compete for and retain competent staff; establish uniform performance standards so they can rapidly deploy workers; outsource work to capable contractors and third-party providers; raise the level of core competencies across the organization; apply a multidisciplined approach to solving complex problems; better integrate products, supply chains, and processes; and comply with local and international regulations. The following paragraphs discuss these goals in greater detail.

Attracting and Retaining Staff

To help organizations attract and retain competent workers, certifications are being designed to identify qualified job candidates, to promote career development, and to recognize employee achievement. Businesses are looking to educational institutions and industry associations to better define and develop technical job competencies and workplace social skills among potential job candidates, and certification helps businesses identify candidates that have acquired these attributes. Businesses and organizations are also investing considerable amounts to develop and maintain technical and professional staff themselves, and certifications are one way to leverage that investment. Consider these examples:

Establishing Uniform Performance Standards

Uniform standards enable organizations to hire capable workers and more rapidly deploy people to different work sites locally, nationally, and internationally. Common job descriptions, hiring criteria, and training are not enough to ensure that staff will possess the same level of competency or can perform to the same standard throughout a national or multinational company. When employees are relocated, whether from southern to northern California or from Germany to Portugal, they often encounter differences in work processes and equipment, tolerance for error, customers' performance expectations, available support and technology, and management expectations between the two locations. These differences affect their ability to perform their tasks; therefore, companies are using certifications to establish common standards and work practices across work sites and even countries. For example:

Facilitating Outsourcing

To control costs, many organizations outsource tasks to outside individuals and firms. Many companies outsource even key functions such as billing and collections, purchasing, and human resources. (The work may or may not be performed off-site: increasingly, "outsourcing" means hiring independent contractors to perform work on-site.) At the same time, companies are relying on third parties-independent distributors and dealers-to sell and service their products, to provide field and customer support, and to operate the aftermarket business (repairs, upgrades, and add-on features). The performance of the contractor or third party reflects directly on the brand image of the company and affects its customer relations. As a result, companies are qualifying their contractors and third parties or requiring them to put a quality system in place that includes earning an external credential. For example:

Raising the Level of Core Competencies

Organizations have discovered that people in different positions and at different levels fulfill many similar roles and perform many similar tasks, such as managing teams, building project plans, and formulating business cases. Similar roles and tasks require the same core competencies, such as good communication skills, leadership ability, and a knowledge of planning. The lack of such competencies limits people's ability to perform common roles effectively, which has a negative impact on productivity and costs. Certification is being used to specify job requirements, identify skill gaps, and develop individual performance improvement plans. For example:

Creating Multidisciplined Jobs

Today, many jobs require people to be competent in more than one area or knowledgeable about more than one discipline (due partly to an increasing need for an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems in business). Therefore, for many employees companies are requiring either cross-training or additional training in new areas. In addition, organizations are providing new development pathways to certify people whose jobs require these multidisciplined competencies. For example:

Integrating Products, Supply Chains, and Processes

Integrating products, supply chains, and processes is a very sophisticated cost management strategy. It gives organizations better control over their supply chains, distribution channels, and internal processes, but it requires a more complex set of competencies among organization personnel. Specifically, it requires expertise in relationship management, process redesign, activity-based costing, and measurement. It also requires a different approach to problem solving. Managers still have to apply algorithms to diagnose problems, but they must also look at situations more holistically, noting in particular the impact on internal and external relationships. They have to facilitate the use of cross-functional teams in redesigning processes and develop measurement systems that track and quantify improvements. They also have to develop incentives that support better cost management through integration. For example:

Complying with Local and International Regulations

Both government and industry impose regulations on companies and other organizations, and companies must comply with them if they want to sell products or provide services, locally or internationally. For example, being certified by the International Standards Organization (ISO) is a requirement for many companies to compete internationally. Firms must qualify their employees and suppliers for ISO certification by some means such as training, experience, or testing. Organizations are experimenting with certifications to help them comply with ISO, local government, and internal regulations. For example:

In each of these examples, organizations have chosen certification as a way to respond to internal and external pressures. Some certifications focus on ensuring the people have the required skills to perform a job. Other programs are designed to influence educational curricula. Still others are meant to influence consumers' buying behavior.

Who to Involve

Two groups are key to successfully designing and implementing an effective certification program: the target audience and the stakeholders. The following paragraphs discuss these groups in detail.

Target Audience

These are the people to be certified-the candidates. Obviously, they have a vested interest in decisions about certification requirements and about what will be made available to help them satisfy those requirements. Candidates for a particular certification may work at the same or different sites and perform the same or different jobs, depending on the driver behind the certification. For example, some certifications are designed for a narrowly defined group who perform a discrete set of tasks, such as product installation, inventory analysis, customer service, or emergency medical assistance. Such certifications are usually based on the target audience's meeting standards unique to the task. Other certifications are for people who serve in different roles yet require the same level of competence in core tasks, such as team leaders, supervisors, and customer and sales support staff. When this is the case, the certifications are usually based on candidates' meeting a common set of standards in areas such as leadership, meeting management skills, interpersonal skills, communication skills, and product knowledge.

The target audience for a certification may all work in the same building, at external customers' sites, from their cars, or even for different employers. They may work independently or as part of a team. It is important to fully define the target audience, in terms of why they would want to be certified (especially if the credential is voluntary), what they already know, what they can do, other credentials they may have, and their work conditions. It is equally important to define the size of the target audience and where they are located. You will use this information to identify incentives necessary for them to support certification, determine how to best reward them once they attain the credential, and decide just what to require of candidates (such as training, an external credential or minimum experience, or passing a test).


The stakeholders are those individuals or groups who have a vested interest in ensuring that the certification's standards or results are appropriate. They are often key decision makers, persons who determine whether or not a program gets implemented. Because the stakeholders are the ones who will define success for the certification program, it is important to identify and define them. Ask such questions as Who are the stakeholders? How many are there? Where are they located? What role must they play for the program to be successful? You will also want to identify the incentives for stakeholder support for the certification. You will use this information to prove a need for the program and to further define the requirements. Stakeholders include sponsors; customers and consumers; supervisors; providers of educational and training programs; the public and regulatory agencies; human resources staff, legal personnel, and internal auditors; and internal or contracted support personnel, such as administrative and information technology staff. The following paragraphs discuss these different types of stakeholders in detail.

Sponsors are those individuals or departments that will fund the certification effort. Consequently, they usually have the greatest economic stake in the program. They have to see a clear link between the certification program and the business or societal need behind it. There may be multiple sponsors, depending on the size and scope of the program. For example, one sponsor might fund a feasibility study and the design and development phases, whereas the costs of implementing and maintaining the program might be borne by a different sponsor. Sponsors' expectations concerning the use of their investment help determine how costs are recovered (through departmental chargebacks or fees) and what the baseline economic measures for the program as a whole are.

Customers and consumers, whether internal or external, are the groups that depend on the competency of the target audience. For example, when the target audience performs one phase of a larger process (like sales), the internal customers are those groups that perform the next phases of the process (like billing, shipping, and installation). If the target audience is supervisors, then the customers are the people who report to those supervisors, as well as the supervisors' bosses. There is almost always more than one set of customers for a certification program, and each has a different set of expectations concerning the target audience. Customer buy-in is essential for the long-term success of any certification program; therefore, it may be necessary to first define a set of shared expectations among the program's customers before designing the program. You will use information from customers and consumers to help set expectations for the certification program, define its standards, and identify potential areas of resistance to it.

Supervisors should have a vested interest in the competency of the workforce they oversee. Thus they generally have a great deal of influence over the implementation and final standards of a certification program. Supervisors must support and reward the behaviors and outcomes the certification is designed to achieve. Some programs even require supervisors to become certified themselves, so they will be qualified to judge other people's performance. Knowing the number of supervisors involved, what their expectations are for the target audience, and to what degree they agree on what competence is will help you set standards they will support. It is also important to create ways to reward or recognize supervisors who hire certified people or support their employees' becoming certified.

Providers of educational and training programs are the groups that offer the education and training required to achieve the credential. Some may even administer and manage the program. They include universities, community colleges, private schools, vendors of training programs, professional and trade associations, and internal training departments. You want to know what role they will play, how supportive they are of the standards, and to what degree their programs impart knowledge and build skills. You will use this information, along with a profile of the target audience, to identify which programs to use and whether or not the programs should be modified.

The public and regulatory agencies are concerned with public health and safety, so organizations that claim their certifications are designed to protect the health and safety of the public should in some way incorporate its voice. Naturally, the public has an interest in the technical competency of the groups or individuals being certified. It also has other expectations, however, such as being kept informed and being treated in a respectful manner. Regulatory agencies are interested in the target audience's technical competence, in how the certifying organization will define and measure that competence, and in how its methods will correlate with accident prevention and threats to public safety and health. You will use information about what the public and regulators expect to develop the standards for the certification.

Human resources staff, legal personnel, and internal auditors want a voice in the design and implementation of any internal certification program, since they have to deal with employee relations, lawsuits, and compliance issues. Internal auditors emulate the process they expect external auditors to follow, so they can uncover and correct problems in advance of formal compliance reviews. Therefore, you want to know who the auditors are, what criteria they use to judge compliance, and what they expect of the certification. Consider how you will involve human resources (HR) staff, legal personnel, and your internal auditors when developing the certification's standards.

Internal or contracted support staff, such as administrative and information technology staff, are the ones who will design and manage the program's database. For example, records should be maintained documenting what each member of the target audience has done to satisfy the standards, who has been certified, and when they should be recertified. Computer software used for general training is sometimes used for certification programs as well. Some organizations use HR data tracking systems for certification programs. Computer systems are also used to administer tests, to register candidates for training and testing sessions, and even to deliver training and testing on-line. You will use information about your program's target audience and standards to define your need for support staff.

Following are examples of the stakeholders of various programs I've observed:

Benefits of Certification

A well-designed certification program meets the needs of the public, the organization that maintains it, the target audience, and the stakeholders. The public benefits when people perform work in ways that protect consumers, workers, and the environment. The certifying organization benefits when the program fulfills its mandate, whether that be to deliver qualified people, to improve performance, or to satisfy an expectation of customers or the public. The target audience benefits when it has a credential that distinguishes it from others in the workforce. Stakeholders benefit when the credential satisfies their specific needs for prudent operations and competent workers. You should identify not only the expectations of the certifying organization and all the vested parties but also what they see as the potential benefits. Knowing this will help you build a business case for supporting the credential and help you evaluate the program's effectiveness.

Missteps and Oversights

When organizations begin developing a certification program, they frequently make three mistakes:

These expectations may be reasonable or unrealistic. It is easy to understand how customers could assume that people who are certified are better skilled at what they do than those who are not and that their work meets higher standards. Unfortunately, the design of a particular certification may not support these assumptions. For example, training departments may promote certifications simply so they can require people to attend courses, rather than to help the organization identify and eliminate actual barriers to performance. Professional societies may promote certifications to get additional revenues from application fees and the sale of training manuals, rather than to promote standards that protect public safety and welfare. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to enroll in training courses or buy publications; however, you have to be sensitive to the possibility that people may assign greater value to a certification program than it can deliver, and any organization that offers a certification cannot ignore the fact that it has made promises, either directly or indirectly.

My brother wanted to hire a technical writer to generate documentation covering equipment specifications and work procedures. One of the people who applied for the contract attached his business card, which read "Certified Document Specialist." My brother concluded that this man had subjected himself to some degree of professional scrutiny, that he took pride in what he did, and that his work complied with professional standards. The certified document specialist got the contract, and the quality of his work met my brother's expectations.


Here are some tips to help you and your team avoid some of the pitfalls other organizations have experienced:


Here are some guidelines to help you lay the groundwork for an effective program:

A. Put together a three- to five-member cross-functional team. Together answer the following questions:

B. What do you know about the target audience (their number, their responsibilities, their position in the organization, and so on)?
C. Who are the other stakeholders?
D. Meet with the stakeholders and find out
E. Prepare a short presentation on certification programs that paints a larger picture of what they do, what makes them effective, what other organizations are doing and why, and what you hope to accomplish through your program.


When you start the process of certifying any group, you set in motion a whole series of events that may have some unexpected fallout. The organization will have to define and agree on its expectations and its commitment to rewarding and supporting the desired behaviors and outcomes. If you want to certify people so you can deploy them as needed, then you will have to get supervisory support for a common set of procedures and performance measures across the organization. If you want people to more accurately represent and service your products, then besides certifying their knowledge and skills you will have to provide them with accurate information in a timely manner. One of the more powerful outcomes from the process of developing and implementing a certification is the pressure it will place on the organization to align its human resource systems (that is, its selection, placement, and promotion criteria). Another unanticipated outcome is that the process will reveal just how capable (or incapable) supervisors are at recognizing and reinforcing competent performance.


Here is a checklist you can use to evaluate your certification program.

Where to Learn More

Browning, A. H., Bugbee, A. C., Jr., and Mullins, M. A. (eds.). Certification: A NOCA Handbook (Washington, DC: National Organization for Competency Assurance, 1996). This book describes the criteria for voluntary certification. It also describes the criteria that independent nongovernmental credentialing agents must satisfy to have their programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. Lenn, M. P., and Campos, L. (eds.). Globalization of the Professions and the Quality Imperative: Professional Accreditation, Certification, and Licensure (Madison, WI: Magna Publications, 1997). This book presents a series of articles explaining how trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1993) and the World Trade Organization's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS, 1994) have encouraged "the development of common educational standards, mutual recognition and the liberalization of processes by which professionals are allowed to practice. Among nations whose education and regulatory systems vary significantly, it falls to educators and professional accrediting agencies to establish review procedures that will ensure the quality of professionals licensed to practice" (p. 2).

Meet the Author

JUDITH HALE is president of the consulting firm Hales Associates. Their services include consultation on alignment, assessment, certification, evaluation, and integration of performance improvement systems, performance management and strategic planning. She is also the author of the hot new Performance Consultant's Fieldbook (Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 1998) Hale lives in Westen Springs, Illimois, a suburb of Chicago.

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