In today’s fast-paced, digitally enabled, remote-work world, competition for technology-related jobs is fierce. One way for technology professionals (e.g., IT professionals, scientists, instructional designers, etc.) to increase their attractiveness to hiring managers is to pursue credentials (e.g., certificates, certification, etc.) from software vendors or professional associations. In addition to opening doors in the job market, professionals can leverage a credential from a recognized organization to increase earning potential, facilitate a promotion, improve skills, boost knowledge, and command respect from peers and managers.
Typically, the benefits of credentialing programs are associated with professionals seeking the credential, but a quality credentialing program can also provide significant benefits for the organization that creates the program. Software vendors, for example, can receive significant benefits from a credentialing program:
- Builds a connection with the customer
- Establishes a standard of excellence for the skills of credential holders, which translates into the perception of product quality
- Fuels product adoption
- Can help cultivate a user community
- Builds brand awareness
- Encourages customer loyalty/retention
- Can provide a new revenue stream
- Increases customer technical competency, thereby reducing dependency on support
- Creates a larger talent pool of expertise to help fulfill hiring needs
- Functions as a sales tool (offer the program to prospects for free so they can test drive your software)
- Can provide data that is useful for future product development
Many software companies have developed credentialing programs as a companion to customer training to capitalize on these benefits. That said, the quality of a credentialing program is directly proportional to the motivation n professional will have to pursue it. It’s not enough to simply throw together a PowerPoint presentation and follow it up with a few multiple-choice exam questions.
In order to receive the above benefits, a software vendor will need to invest significant time and money into creating a high quality program. Let’s take a closer look at best practices used by software vendors for successful credentialing program development, implementation, and maintenance.
Be Clear on What You Are Offering
The first and critical step to creating a successful program is to get clear on what you are offering. If you don’t have this clarity, you won’t be able to effectively communicate the opportunity to prospective students, and enrollment in your program will suffer.
Professional certification, accreditation, licensure, and training certificates are all types of credentialing programs. When seeking to advance their career, many professionals explore certification and certificate options. While these two terms are often used interchangeably, they are technically not the same thing.
Professional certifications are typically granted by non-governmental agencies (e.g., professional associations or societies, industry boards, private agencies) that are authorities in a particular industry or profession as recognition that a student has met certain qualifications specified by the agency. The qualifications can include graduation from an accredited training program, passing a qualifying exam, and/or completion of a specified amount or type of work experience. The certification serves to corroborate that an individual has demonstrated a level of proficiency in a field or skill in question that meets industry standards.
Training certificates, on the other hand, are typically offered by organizations following completion of a training program on a specific topic and serve to attest to the student’s mastery of course content via successful completion of an exam. The graphic below summarizes some of the key differences between professional certifications and training certificates:
Even though credentialing programs created by software vendors are clearly of the software certificate variety, many vendors label their programs as “software certifications.” While one could say that this is simply a matter of semantics, savvy professionals recognize the difference between the two types of credentials and may negatively judge the credibility of your program if you don’t label it properly.
As a software vendor, if you want to label your credentialing program a software certification, you should establish continuing education and recertification requirements. In addition, as certification programs are usually taught by accredited organizations, it may be wise to set up a third-party audit of your program to get ISO certification to help establish credibility.
Software Credentialing Program Best Practices
Whether you choose to label your program a software certification or certificate, it is critical that the program be high-quality and provide value to professionals. Creating a successful credentialing program is an arduous process that is time and cost-intensive. A best practice methodology for program development, implementation, and maintenance will include the following:
Develop your strategy. Strategic planning is the first step to establishing a successful credentialing program. In essence, you’ll want to flush out the reasons why you are creating this program. What are your goals? At minimum, you should answer the following questions:
- Who is the target audience for your program?
- How will your program provide value to this audience?
- How will your program provide value for your company?
- What pain points within your organization will this program help to address?
- What are the key performance indicators (KPI) that will allow you to gauge the program a success?
Create a development and implementation plan. With your strategy and goals firmly established, it’s time to create a plan to carry them out. Key elements of your plan will include:
- Timeline – In most cases, a quality credentialing program will take a minimum of one year to develop and implement. You’ll want to set realistic timeframes for all the different stages in the journey.
- Budget – What is your budget for development, implementation, marketing, and maintenance? Be sure to factor in exam development costs, training development costs, technology costs to deliver the program, resource costs for program management, marketing costs, materials costs, legal costs, etc.
- Revenue projections – Having to pay for your credential will create the perception of value in your candidates, but this means you need to create a program that is worthy of the cost. Keep in mind that the amount you charge should be proportional to the value your students get out of the program.
- Audience analysis – As your revenue depends on the number of students who enroll in your program, you should conduct an audience analysis to determine the size, scope and location of your potential audience.
- Certification policy and conformance requirements – How will your credentialing program operate? What are the requirements to which a candidate must conform to qualify for your credential? Will candidates need to maintain their credential once they receive it? Will you require program participants to engage in continuing education to keep their skills/knowledge up to date? If so, how often? Will you provide any other benefits to those that have received your credential (e.g., discounted attendance at company events, access to thought leaders within your organization)?
- Legal requirements – You’ll need a lawyer to assist with creating a Trademark Licensing Agreement (TMLA).
- Credentialing and tracking – You’ll want to create a certificate or digital badge to signify program completion, with a unique QR code for online verification of document authenticity. How will you track those who have obtained your credential? Will you have an automated registry?
- Resource requirements – What resources are needed to manage the exam vendor, and create and manage the technical infrastructure, curriculum, course materials, exams, etc.?
Develop your curriculum. Your curriculum is the heart of your program. To develop the curriculum, you’ll want to conduct a job analysis on your target audience. You want to know what knowledge and skills needed for the job at hand, and what are the key tasks and activities that are performed? In addition, the analysis should help you answer these questions about your potential students:
- What are their pain points?
- What are their goals?
- How can your program help them achieve their goals?
Next, you’ll translate the knowledge you gain from the job analysis into course learning objectives. As your learning objectives are the foundation of your program, they must be developed with care and precision.
Finally, you’ll want to determine the best approach to satisfy your learning objectives. A content/course storyboard can be helpful here. Will your credential be achieved with a single course, or will it be a multi-course affair? Will your credential have different levels? Will you include pre-tests along with post-tests?
Select and implement the delivery vehicle. Will your content be distributed primarily as self-paced eLearning modules or as online instructor-led workshops and/or webinars? A learning management system (LMS) can streamline the delivery of credentialing programs by making it easy for students to track day-to-day progress and access content, while enabling you to track your learners and the overall success of your program.
Choosing the right LMS to administer your program is critical. You’ll want an online platform that can handle simultaneous testing by multiple candidates and provides automated test evaluation and results. You’ll also need a portal that allows candidates to register, schedule test date/time, and make payments. And don’t forget to make sure all program content is delivered in a mobile-friendly way. LMS add-ons are often necessary to effectively deliver a complex credentialing program. A best practice methodology should be followed that involves requirements development to select and implement the necessary technologies for your program.
Develop course content and assessments. With your course learning objectives and content delivery methods set, you are now ready to develop course content (both training and assessments). When developing this material, make sure that all test questions reference material that was taught in the course content and all course content is tied directly to a learning objective.
If you don’t have professionals in-house who are experienced instructional designers, you’ll want to work with an external consultant who is well-versed in instructional design and specializes in training development. Internal subject matter experts (SMEs) need to be involved in the development phase as well, however, given their expertise with the software that students are being trained on.
As your exams will be part of the conformance requirements of your program, establishing exams that command a high level of respect from the marketplace is essential. A poorly written exam can sink your program and damage the reputation of your company. Quality exams are a core requirement of any successful credentialing program. The best exams contain a lot of scenario-based questions, as these types of questions are excellent measures of skills and knowledge and are also more difficult to cheat on.
You’ll want to create a proctoring system to prevent exam cheating. The options include live proctoring, auto-proctoring via software, or record and review proctoring. Live proctoring is obviously the preferred method, but it is also the costliest. Additional methods to support exam integrity include authenticating the ID of candidates prior to the test via biometric, submission of ID, face recognition, background information check, etc. It is also wise to utilize a secure browser during the test, so candidates cannot access anything other than the test on the device they are using.
Be sure to create an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) and make sure all your SMEs that are involved in the process of exam development sign it. To preserve the integrity of your credentialing program, it is essential that none of your test questions get shared on social media or anywhere else outside of your company. An NDA will help reinforce that you take this matter seriously and help prevent your program from becoming compromised in the future.
Finally, your exams should be test driven with a small internal group before being released to actual candidates. It’s ideal to have a diverse group of beta-testers (those expected to do well on the exam, people who should be right around the pass/fail mark, and people who should fail), as this will give you an idea if the exam is on target.
Develop a marketing plan. Without a strong marketing plan to market your program, you are setting yourself up for failure. The job analysis you conducted helps you understand the goals and pain points of your audience. Now you’ve got to communicate how your program will help your audience achieve their goals and address their pain points.
A credentialing program that is not coupled with a robust marketing effort sends a message that you aren’t proud of your program. If you’ve taken the time to build a solid program, you should shout from the rooftops. Here are a few marketing tips:
- Make your program and digital badging prominently featured on your website.
- Create a dedicated email for your program and make sure all questions are answered promptly.
- Create an FAQ on your program and make sure it is visible on your website and included as a link in every email response you send.
- Capture testimonials about your program and feature them on your website.
- Write a blog about the program.
- Do a podcast about the program.
- Advertise your program at conferences and sponsored events.
- Have your CEO and other C-suite employees talk about the program publicly.
- Include your credentialing program as part of your sales deals.
- Mention your credentialing program in all advertising for your software.
- Create social media accounts for your program and regularly post good content.
- Create quality collateral for your sales team (e.g., brochures, data sheets, price list, course catalog, etc.)
- Build an internal database of program prospects and send regular marketing emails to this list.
Ongoing Certification Course Management and Optimization. Program maintenance is one of the most important aspects of a world-class credentialing program. Technology changes fast, and it’s important that you keep your course content and exams up to date. Every time you release updates to your software, release an update to your credentialing program. In addition, you should engage in a systematic review of all aspects of your program at least once a year.
Depending on the scope of your program and the number of students that take it, you may want to hire a program manager who will oversee:
- Marketing – Implementation of and revisions to your marketing plan.
- Student enrollment – Overseeing student enrollment and answering any questions via email
- Student support – Answering student questions throughout the program, soliciting and responding to program feedback, soliciting testimonials
- Credential management – Granting credentials, delivering digital badges, maintaining records, reminding students of recertification deadlines and requirements, soliciting testimonials
- Social media – Maintaining social media accounts
- Program optimization – Facilitating evolution/revision of program technical features, course content, and exams because of student negative feedback or examination of key metrics
- Data mining – Collecting data on KPIs to communicate to C-suite
A software credentialing program can provide significant benefits for both the students and the company that creates the program. As this blog shows, however, it takes a substantial amount of effort, rigor, and resources to create a world-class credentialing program. If you are going to embark on the credentialing program journey, it is imperative that you take it seriously and invest the resources required to produce a quality program.
A credentialing program cobbled together at the last minute will reflect poorly on your brand and ultimately damage the public’s perception of your software. If you don’t have the in-house expertise to create a program that does your students and brand justice, it’s important to find a quality consultant with the knowledge and experience to assist you in the process.