Designing a Certification Program: What to Certify?

PM Certification commentary by William Duncan, IPMA-USA Certification Director.

We’re looking at the who, what, when, where, why, and how of designing a project management certification program. In this post, I’ll focus on WHAT to certify. The options pretty much all fall into one of the following six categories:

  • Specific skills?
  • Potential?
  • Experience?
  • Attitudes?
  • Competence?
  • Knowledge?

The first letters form a useful acronym, SPEACK, pronounced “speak” as in “speak to me about why you should be certified.”

Specific skills and attitudes could be assessed, but there is little agreement about what skills and attitudes are needed to be a successful Project Manager. The question of the relative importance of technical skills and management skills is especially acute in some fields. We could try to assess potential, but this is essentially what a job interview does. Bill Oncken tells us that we never hire the best person for the job; only the least bad person that applied. Hardly good criteria for a certification program!

Experience is also tempting because it is so easy to measure: how many years have you been working in your current position? But experience doesn’t really tell us anything. First, there is the old joke about do you have 10 years of experience or did you have 1 year of experience 10 times. Second, it’s possible that a candidate could have been less than successful. Employers will have little respect for a certification program that approves those who have not been successful.

Knowledge can certainly be assessed. In fact, our entry level program, Level D, assesses knowledge. Tests are easy to administer and grade. Unfortunately, tests are subject to Hume’s Law: all they prove is that the candidate was able to obtain a passing score on the day they took the test. Even a test that includes situational questions cannot provide assurance that the candidate will choose the right answer when faced with a real world problem. Grading also presents a can of worms: do you pose hard questions and allow low scores to pass? or do you ask easier questions and make the passing grade higher? do you require passing grades by topic area? or do you allow someone who misses every question related to risk management to pass?

If you’ve been keeping score, the only thing we are left with is competence. Although there are many definitions of competence, the one that we use is this: “the ability to perform according to the standards expected in employment.” So what we assess is this: can you demonstrate competent performance.

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