Certification vs. Education

August 18, 2010 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Quality 

Way back in 1939, the great and powerful Oz had this to say to the Scarecrow, who was in search of a brain:

“Why, anybody can have a brain, that’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pucilanimous creature that crawls on the earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain.

Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts, and with no more brains than you have.

But they have one thing you haven’t got – a diploma.

Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatis Committeatum, E. pluribus unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D. (Doctor of Thinkology).”

Receiving that piece of paper didn’t make the scarecrow any smarter, as evidenced by his screwing up pythagorean and isosceles triangle theorems. He clearly received an empty credential.

More than seventy years later, we still struggle to recognize the distinction between certification and education.

In her 2004 book Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs suggests that there are five key pillars supporting society, and the decay of these could drop us into an new dark age. One of these pillars of society is higher education, and she suggests that there is more interest in credentials than high quality education these days.

I’m not sure I’m as pessimistic about the outcomes of a credentialing system, but I do think that a relative emphasis on credentials and certification can serve to slow down our progress, possibly even send us down a wrong path or two.

These days, there is often hundreds of applicants for each new job opportunity in the industry. Our approach to whittling down that massive pile to a set that is more manageable is to use certifications: relevant degrees, professional designations, or diplomas. An MBA will put you on the short list for some roles, if you are not a PMP or Certified Scrum Master you won’t even be considered for others.

It’s an imperfect system, but it’s the one that is in place. People with a vast amount of relevant experience and education will sometimes be passed over in the process, and informal apprenticeships and the school-of-hard-knocks provide little recognized value. With this system in place, the circle is closed in the higher education system (including universities and colleges as well as private institutions) by providing what the industry demands: degrees and designations and diplomas – Oh My!

This is not to say that all of these certifications are useless. The notion of education vs. certification is a false dichotomy. Rather, we need to recognize that they are on independent axes: I believe that in many cases the amount of valuable education we receive is not sufficiently correlated to the certification received at the end of the day.

in an ideal world, every certification would have real teeth, and one would not be conferred unless there was a clear objective attainment of the learning objectives for the session. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and there is a general (but misguided) assumption that with a piece of paper comes the improved proficiency to deal with real-world problems. This is also partially due to the general lack of appreciation for what the learning objectives really are for a given certification: what is often a certification of a minimum exposure in a given topic is sometimes interpreted as an attainment of excellence.

The marketplace should eventually decide on the actual merit of the certificate. If there is a strong correlation between attaining the certificate and demonstrating excellence in the field, the certification will thrive over the long term. If the certificate is obtainable with little or no effort – if you can get one from sitting in a classroom silently for a couple of days or lean on your teammates to do all the required work – the industry will slowly recognize this. The education provider might be able to put bums in seats for a while, but they may find that a subset of applicants will show up with little intent to learn, and a vicious downward cycle will ensue. Unfortunately, this cycle can take years or decades to play out, too slowly to be of any real value.

It would be nice to say that it is incumbent on the education provider to provide this correlation, to do better than that well-meaning old travelling road show charlatan from the Midwest. Unfortunately, business is business, and through all this the almighty dollar rules. Serve the industry by providing certifications, and the industry will continue to feed the classrooms, keeping revenue high. As long as revenue remains high, there is generally little perceived need to change what is in place, regardless of the level of education provided. The system itself strongly supports the certification process, and generally ignores the value of true education.

We can have both, but the bottom line is that the focus on education is really incumbent on the individuals in the classroom. Regardless of whether there is a certificate at the end of the day, regardless of how that certification is appreciated or demanded in the workplace, we can always enter into the classroom with the intent for education.

Whether the attraction was a certificate or PDUs or some other form of accreditation, once the session starts, we should really be interested in more than just doing the time. We should enter into the transaction with an open mind, with an interest to share ideas and to explore alternatives, with the intent to expand our horizons. I’m generally the instructor or facilitator in the classroom these days, and I know that my primary focus is education – certification can be a nice secondary benefit. More often than not, I find that I’m learning new things with every new group I work with – as it should be.

Once we step foot in the classroom, whether we are in the front of the class or not, education and learning is our personal responsibility. – JB

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One Response to “Certification vs. Education”

  1. Expertise vs Humility | Clarrus on September 11th, 2012 9:31 am

    […] of expertise is big business – but frankly, so what? A few years ago, I wrote about the distinction between certification and education, but this is something […]

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