Making sense of certifications

Whenever talking about IT certification, it's important to note that not all certification programs are created equal. Many certifications rely solely on multiple-choice tests, which merely estimate a candidate's knowledge or understanding of a subject.

After more than a half-century of employment testing (using primarily multiple-choice tests), authorities agree that scores on even the most well-developed tests can't precisely forecast how workplace performance will differ from one person to the next.

On the testing front, criticism of multiple-choice tests and the desire to develop higher-level exams (tests that measure more than knowledge or are more predictive of how workers will perform on the job) have prompted test developers to build scenario-based exams, simulation exams, live application exams and other hands-on tests. In my view, these hands-on tests, which are being used in certifications from companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks, Ltd., have more merit than paper-only exams.

After a flurry of activity on the part of employers and employees, interest in IT certifications seems to be waning. Fewer and fewer IT managers I talk to are particularly interested in the topic. (The exception is external service providers, who are extremely interested in certification because they use it to differentiate themselves from the competition.)

The market for IT certifications, of course, was largely fueled by vendors. They saw certification as a way to seed the market with experts in their software and individuals who saw a way to quickly break into the lucrative field of IT.

Most hiring managers have figured out that certifications don't predict performance and have become rather jaded on the subject. IT wannabes have recognized that the cooling economy has put a temporary end to the IT hiring frenzy.

There's also a bit of saturation in the market around the more popular certifications, such as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.

But don't count IT certifications out. Smart IT managers have figured out that IT certification does have a place. For entry-level IT positions or roles that involve mostly technical knowledge, IT certifications are still a useful way to measure knowledge, screen applicants and assist in promotion decisions.

It's true that certification isn't a substitute for experience and doesn't necessarily mean that an individual has the real-world experience to design and implement the system on which he is certified.

But certifications are evolving, too, and are increasingly being used by IT organizations as a piece of an overall learning strategy, rather than the sole basis of a learning strategy.

The Market

Typically, certifications are granted by three types of organizations: vendors, training companies and industry associations. Industry associations offer the most independent form of validation and ensure experience and a broader perspective than vendor certifications, although they lag in developing tests covering new technologies.

Vendor certification generally validates knowledge rather than proficiency and complements rather than competes with independent certifications. Vendor certification typically trains people in a vendor's product, but not necessarily in the strategic concepts that govern the entire area.

To judge the value of an IT certification credential, candidates and managers should ask the following questions:

1) Is relevant experience required?

2) Was the test developed by a test expert or psychometrician?

3) Does the test require solving real problems?

4) Is recertification required at regular intervals?

5) Is the certification accredited or recognized by reputable organizations?

It's true that as IT roles increasingly require a blending of technical, business and interpersonal skills, IT managers will find that IT certifications - particularly those tied to a product or technology - are relevant for a smaller percentage of their staff.

Going forward, the trend in IT certification will be toward customization (by companies) and a broadening from purely technical content to a mix of technical, business and behavioral competencies. This is already evident in certifications that focus on broader roles, like project management and E-business.

Enterprises that are serious about certification will develop their own corporate certifications for key job roles that incorporate their products and technology as well as their business processes and knowledge of their industry.

Gomolski is a research director at Gartner Inc. Contact her at

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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