While certification programs fall under the training umbrella, there are some relatively distinct differences between these types of programs and typical training programs. Certification programs generally include an assessment of knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). While training programs may include this type of evaluation, it is certainly not a requirement. Further, certification programs culminate in the bestowment of a credential which signifies that the holder has met a specific standard in terms of possession of and ability to demonstrate those KSAs. Training programs do not typically include this type of signifier. And for some certification programs, training is not required at all. Individuals have the option to forgo preparatory training and skip straight to the assessment of their capabilities in order to achieve certification.

Since the purpose and processes involved in certifications programs are different from typical training programs, their design and development also tend to differ. Best practices dictate that both should start with an analysis of the type of work being performed and the KSAs required to perform that work, as well as a needs analysis to assess gaps between the required KSAs and current workforce capabilities. Recent meta-analytic research, conducted by yours truly, shows that the outcomes of these initial diagnostic steps vary depending on whether they are conducted for the purposes of developing a training program or a certification.

SME Work Ratings by Type of Program Developed

As depicted in the left third of the graph above, work analyses conducted for the purpose of developing certifications tend to produce greater agreement across subject matter experts (SMEs). In fact, the research shows that the strongest level of SME agreement across all work analyses purposes (e.g., development of selection programs, redesigning work, etc.) occurs when they are providing information for developing certification programs. The central part of the above graph shows that, when asked to provide ratings of the importance, frequency, difficulty, and other key facets of work SMEs provide consistently higher ratings for certification programs. Finally, looking at the deviation across those ratings, we see in the right third of the graph that ratings provided for certification programs tend to produce slightly higher standard deviations.

Taken together, the above comparison points to a few insights:

  1. SMEs approach the development of certification programs differently than they do typical training programs. While this could be an artifact of different techniques for soliciting SME information, it may also reflect a greater magnitude placed by SMEs on conferring certification status upon learners. Of note is the large mean differences between ratings provided for each purpose, indicating that SMEs tend to place greater emphasis on the work tasks and competencies taught in certification programs than those taught in more general training programs.
  2. SMEs tend to provide more consistent work information when it will be used for the development of certification programs. Agreement levels were higher and standard deviations were comparable for certification programs. This may reflect a tendency to identify professionals with similar perspectives when developing certification programs, whereas, programs developed for other more general training purposes may rely on more diverse perspectives.
  3. The approach to developing certification programs should and does differ from that of more general training programs. At a minimum, forethought must be used in identifying all of the KSAs that are critical to a profession and determining methods for assessing their presence in individuals seeking to become certified in that profession.

It is important to keep both purpose and process in mind when developing a certification program. Though there are similarities between these programs and traditional training, differences across the two will likely produce divergent work and needs analyses results.