Are Certifications Important?

There are different kinds of certifications.

“Are you a certified nut?” asked a co-worker years ago when I suggested that our group do something counter-intuitive to address an ongoing problem. Although this co-worker was questioning my sanity, they had overlooked something that I thought was far more insane, which was that we were continuing to run the same process and expecting the results to improve. I was able to persuade the team to try my idea, and it worked.

“Are you certified to do this?” another client asked me years later, when I suggested changes to a rack structure design. I argued from experience and common sense, but the client’s managers chose to continue with their design, ignoring my suggestion because I was not a Registered Professional Engineer. The design still failed, and the PE called in to assess what had gone wrong made the exact suggestion I had made.

A few months ago, Kasturi Sawant posed this question in a discussion in the Operational Excellence group on LinkedIn: “Why are Certifications Important?” Kasturi is an executive for an Indian firm, KnoWerX, that is a mix of consultants, trainers, and certifiers. The firm’s mission, to empower individuals and organizations to be successful through lifelong learning, is a valid and noble vision. They want to be a resource to provide individuals with best-practices knowledge and certification in their respective areas, and to provide organizations with consultancy services and training for their employees.

Unlike so much of the typical marketing chum that people throw out on the discussion boards of various LinedIn groups, Kasturi’s question was interesting, and had the potential to spark some conversation. Posed as a question, it struck me as a weak manifesto; “Innovation plays vital role everywhere. It can be seen in our houses, in our society, in the workplace, and so on. Innovation is important for companies of all sizes and all types, and it can help organizations to satisfy their customers' needs efficiently. But to develop innovations one should have complete and updated knowledge in the particular field. Certification will help to develop awareness, to compete … and to satisfy customers.”

It did not take long for people to challenge the notion of certification. This group of over 44,000 members has a core of serious practitioners in LEAN, Six-Sigma, and true Operations Management experience. That is why I like to visit the discussions, read the posts, and hear what people are saying about the notion of operational excellence. That is why I jumped into the conversation—after sensing blood in the water from some of the first hits.

“Certification without purpose is a waste of energy and resources (including money). Never have a logistic in search of a strategy. Rather, make sure any building of capability is aligned to a corporate strategy and overarching engineered program,” commented fellow We Are The Practitioners writer Joe Paris.

Mohammes Hamed Ahmed Soliman added, “Certificates are [proof] of your abilities to others, and not [proof] that you have these abilities! Certificates don't actually improve your ability without a self-development and self-education.”

Others said that certification was just a third party indicating an individual's proficiency in an area, like a reference. The idea was that certification programs ensure an common language and agreed-upon set of expectations and definitions, meeting a minimum set of criteria. Others suggested that the certification programs provided a gatekeeper function.

But does certification lead to innovation? I find it hard to make that connection. Perhaps a company can be innovative in developing a certification program in such a way as to generate more revenue or profit for the organization creating the certification program.

The Contrarian View

Peter J Cotontail Business Card.JPG

Please let me present a contrarian view, the view of the person looking at the letters behind your name on your business card.

We have seen these business cards in meetings. This card reads:


How much trust do you put in the organization granting the certification? What do you know about the organizations that grant these certifications? How much do you know about the certification? How rigorous is the process? How does the certification subject apply to my needs?

I worked for an executive who always poked at the person who presented a business card with an "alphabet soup" of certifications behind their name. Sometimes that poke came at the beginning of the meeting, when this executive asked, "What do the letters mean?" Sometimes it came in the middle of the meeting, just before the executive abruptly ended the meeting by saying, "I was right on my first impression, you were good at taking a test."

Once, after one of these abrupt endings, and after the adviser had left the room, the executive said, "The only letter that matters behind a name are MD, Esq., DMD, and PhD, and I sometimes doubt PhD." He believed that most certifications indicated only that you could take and pass a test. He did make allowances for professional engineers (PE) and accountants (CPA) because of the rigor of the certification process and the stamp of authority of government agency. However, this same executive held some of these same people in contempt because "just passing the test does not mean you know what you are doing."

A few years ago, a colleague struggled through the PMP certification process. She is an above-average project manager, able to execute process-change projects. She struggled through the PMP process until she learned to answer the questions on the exam exactly as they were in the book, even though her practical experience told her the book was wrong. She wanted the PMP in order to add it to her CV, to make the statement that she was a "trained professional." In the end, however, she said it did not help her secure any more work.

In the past five years, almost every "professional" organization that claims to be "the" professional organization in supply-chain has rolled out a certification program. CSCMP, ISM, SCORE, WERC, MHI, APICS, ASTL—they all have certification programs. Of all of them, the only ones that have rigorous programs are APICS and ASTL. A number of for-profit organizations claim to have certification programs, and the only path to obtaining their certification is to take their classes (for a fee) and then take the test (for a fee). There is not "test out" option.

The phrase "Buyer Beware" applies both to the client who is looking at the alphabet-soup business card and to the person presenting the card. That certification you worked so hard to get may be the exact thing that blocks your entry.

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How does a certification help?

Let’s agree on a few points. There is a place for some “letters” for follow the surname on the business card. These are the classic MD for Medical Doctor, DDS for Doctor of Dental Surgery, PhD, Esq, CPA, and any others that denote the distinction of a major effort to become licensed after years of specialized education. Then there are letters that indicate birth line, like Jr, Sr, II, III, IV, etc.

You don’t put MBA after your name, or any other alphabet soup. Those letters belong in your résume, or on the bio you post on Linked-In, not after you name on your business card.


Today I want to ask why you should pursue a certification. It seems to me there are two reasons to do so:

  1. To expand your knowledge to “expert level” in an area of study where you already have a great deal of knowledge.
  2. To get a piece of paper that says you took a test and demonstrated that you know enough to earn the paper so you can either get a job or earn more money in the job you already have.

Well, there is a third reason — to earn enough pieces of paper to fill a wall with framed pieces of paper to intimidate people who visit your office.

Everyone has an ego, and we may want to be recognized for taking a special course, or for something else that we did that was special, something we did that most people did not do. Doctors, lawyers, and dentists display their diplomas — and more important, their licenses — on the wall to build trust with their patients and clients.

Think about this: The last time you went to the doctor’s office, did you ask to see his diploma? Did you ask the dentist where his diploma was? Did you study your attorney’s diploma before talking to them about your legal issues?

I didn’t think so.

Getting back to those two reasons, which drives your motivation?

I can’t answer for you, because I don’t know you. I know I strive to learn more every day. I don’t take the certification route because the quest to learn, to develop knowledge, does not need a piece of paper. That does not mean I don’t take classes, because I do. It does not mean I don’t go to seminars, because I do. But I go to the classes, read the books, and talk to other people in the field so I can learn, not so that I can get a piece of paper.

If I were to roll back the clock 30 years, I would find myself in a time when none of these certifications existed. If only my age and my career status rolled back, and I was a young entry-level warehouse manager again, would I get into these certification programs?

I don’t think so.

Do companies require specific certifications for jobs? There are cases. In the last decade companies have gotten into the habit — call it a fetish — of requiring Six Sigma training. Six Sigma is a formal quality control process developed by General Electric to improve process quality in areas like invoice processing, sale order entry, and manufacturing processes. There are job postings right now looking for people “certified in Lean-Six Sigma management."

People spend money for the training to make themselves more attractive in the job market. Their employer may have paid for the course, or they may have, but they got the belt. Did the belt help them? I know people who took the courses on their own dime and never got a better opportunity because of it. I know people whose employers spent the money, and who took the course and got the belt and then never applied the learning because the company did not give them the opportunity.

Is it is a fetish, or more of a habit?

We see how companies get into the habit of asking for certifications or college degrees where a degree is unnecessary. Companies use certificates as a proxy of proof of abilities. The managers don't know how to assess the candidates' skills, so they take the shortcut by asking for certificates. People became certificates advocates not to improve their knowledge, but to change their jobs.

There is a difference between asking for a degree and asking for a certification. There is also a difference between a certification and a license. Certification required by regulation is license. Many US states certify accountants and license plumbers and electricians. A licensed trade requires experience, testing of knowledge, and a good reputation (in the form of references). If I am an electrical contractor hiring electricians, the license is required, just as a dentist wants only licensed dental hygienists and doctors want only licensed medical assistants.

The trend of HR departments and recruiters asking for certifications comes, IMNSHO (In My Not So Humble Opinion), from the ignorance of the people tasked to hire for the position.

Recruiters are good at finding people to apply for positions. Note, I did not say they were good at finding qualified people to do the work, only good at finding people to apply. I would never task a recruiter to find AND hire people.

As the hiring manager, I have to decide whether this person can do the job. If I, the hiring manager, am lazy, overwhelmed, or inexperienced at making hiring decisions, I might attempt to push that selection burden off onto the HR manager/recruiter. And many hiring managers do exactly that.

Now the HR manager/recruiter has to do something they are ill equipped to do — hire for technical knowledge. The proxy for technical knowledge used to be experience: if the candidate listed experience on their resume/CV that matched what the hiring manager was looking for, then the candidate was deemed qualified. In the old days, when companies allowed managers to provide references for past employees, this method worked. However, due to the potential for litigation stemming from a poor but accurate reference, companies discouraged the practice of checking references. In the absence of the reference call, people ended up in positions for which they were not qualified.

What is the poor corporate HR professional left to do? Look to see if there are certifications for the technical skills. We saw this happen with (Novel, Cisco, Microsoft) Certified Network Engineers (they were not engineers by any stretch) in the 1990s. The practice spread into other fields in which the work was more technical. I saw a listing for a warehouse job that required a "certified forklift operator." Yes, there are training programs in which, as part of the safety training, a test is administered in order to certify that the person attended a safety training class, passed the test, and got a license to operate the equipment.

Does your driver’s license mean that you are a good driver? NO! It just means that you demonstrated the minimum skills and knowledge needed to obtain the license.

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