Issue with Certification Training

The huge issue with certification training:

Is that it’s like mixing oil with water

There has been an enormous growth in certification and related training courses (e.g. PMP) in recent years. Firstly there is nothing inherently wrong with certification itself or certification ‘courses’.  However there are major issues around the difference between certification ‘training’ and courses that teach real skills which deliver measurable improvements in organsational competence.  They are not the same and pretending they are is at best misleading. This article will show why and hopefully help people choose courses that match their real aims and expectations.

The main issue:

The main issue is that all certification courses focus on exam prep (1) far more than developing new skills, or sometimes they even do so almost exclusively from start to finish.  To be fair to training firms, they are judged by their (sometimes published) pass rates and therefore the motivation to do this is locked into the whole ‘system’ by some of the certification bodies.

This often leaves little focus or time on real skills development or especially actual business improvement.  It is made worse by the culture that whatever is in the ‘book’, upon which the course is based, is a) ‘best practice’ and b) un-debatable – as exam questions are based on the underlying ‘book’ or manual.   This is a major issue as some certification courses are a very long way from best-practice.

Another major issue with certifications even affecting some BoKs:

A couple of decades ago, major PM associations produced bodies of knowledge (BoKs) some of which contained nothing more than a large series of references to published sources by topic.  Clearly, it was going to be tough to develop credible comprehensive exams based on such loosely defined content.

In more recent years, the temptation of huge certification revenues has resulted in bodies of knowledge being totally re-structured and re-written to provide the basis of exams.  Within this, possibly the most contentious issue is the introduction of many dozens of brand new ‘rules’ that are used as the basis of exam questions:

  • Who owns this …
  • Who authors the …
  • Who signs off the ….
  • Who does what when “x” occurs,
  • etc. and it goes on and on and on.

The problems with this are:

  1. Bodies of knowledge should never attempt to define strict business rules. They don’t belong in such places. If they ever belong anywhere they belong at the process level and are also driven by a company’s organisation, not just method. A body of knowledge is just that; it’s a collection of knowledge about a large-scale topic. It cannot involve prescriptive business ‘rules’ that can be applied in all industries and all circumstances.
  2. Project management is not a binary science and this raises challenges to authors of exams.  Many of the questions are poor or unfair and often it is very unclear (2) what the answer is. Some are even fundamentally unsound as questions. Even seasoned professionals are left guessing.
  3. The other issue is that the appetite to develop more and more rules upon which to base questions drives people to create illogical and sometimes even ridiculous rules (3), which then become the basis of very destructive messages on certification training courses.

Where is the evidence?

We have had hundreds of people talk to us following attending some form of certification training in the UK, especially those aimed at managing projects, saying that despite spending 3-5 days they actually learned very little (many even said close to or even nothing) of real value.

In the last few days Murray Kronick posted the following on a Linkedin discussion aimed at getting feedback on “managing benefits” certification training (and kindly gave us permission to include his words):

“The 4 people on my course in Ottawa were not at all satisfied with our 5 days of the ‘Managing Benefits’ course. Although we all managed to pass, we really learned next to nothing – it was all focused on writing the exam, not on learning any content. Memorization, not comprehension. A wasted opportunity.”

So what is the solution?

We propose that we start to distinguish between:

  • Exam prep workshops – and stop calling them training courses (4) and,
  • Real training courses that deliver valuable new skills, which are linked in a highly targeted and structured way to organisational development and ongoing competency development.

Notes:

  1. Most certification courses are dominated by learning definitions of terms and putting them into exam question context. Often a huge proportion of the course is dedicated to this. It is more an exercise in memory retention than skills development.
  2. If you look at question 3 of this sample paper, answers A-C are all a subset of project risk management and “D” is the aim of project risk management – is that what ‘best’ describes it?  This is not an isolated example and the same issue occurs on many UK-based certification exams.  On the same paper question 1 is very poor –  A, B, C and D are all recipients of ‘communication’ and the ‘correct’ answer is just the application of definitions (e.g. is a stakeholder inside or outside the core project team, in your language?).  However given the level of this qualification there is something very wrong if any experienced project manager cannot get questions 1 or 3 right 100% of the time without the need for a manual or a training course.
  3. The MSP certification course contains a ‘rule’ that projects cannot deliver benefits, only programmes can. This ‘rule’ is total rubbish.
  4. Unless there is independant evidence that a supplier delivers a course that achieves both aims.

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1 Comment

  1. Dr Paul D Giammalvo on March 20, 2017 at 11:56 pm

    Good and timely article.

    There are several “solutions” to this problem and one which we as a long training provider committed to developing COMPETENCY have adopted.
    1) Like learning to drive a car or fly a plane or SCUBA dive, you cannot develop competency by reading books or reviewing case studies. The ONLY way to build competency is to actually “Initiate, Plan, Execute, Control and Close” projects in a supervised or mentored environment. Thus those training providers who want to develop COMPETENCY create courses following the “best tested and proven” practices established by the Buck Institutes Project Based Learning. http://www.bie.org/about/what_pbl

    2) The top ranked training providers do not just measure whether the instructor was entertaining, the food was good and the venue was comfortable, but actually measure whether or not their training produced RESULTS- that people actually IMPLEMENTED what they learned in the class. So today’s most effective training providers have adopted the Kirkpatrick Method, which measures the total impact of the training against 4 metrics. http://www.kirkpatrickpartners.com/OurPhilosophy/TheNewWorldKirkpatrickModel/tabid/303/Default.aspx

    To my knowledge, the ONLY credentialing organization which requires their Endorsed Training Providers to meet these criteria is the Guild of Project Controls- http://www.planningplanet.com/guild/certification

    For more on this topic, see this paper- http://pmworldjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/pmwj36-Jul2015-Giammalvo-producing-competent-practitioners-second-edition.pdf

    BR,
    Dr. PDG, Jakarta, Indonesia

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