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IT Training vs Certifications: What's the Difference?

IT Training vs Certifications: What's the Difference?
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In a recent story titled Developing a Certification Program: It’s Not Just About Training, Dr. Amy DuVernet digs into a subject that readers occasionally ask me about — namely, what’s the difference between a (vendor) training program and a certification program? Certainly, both kinds of offerings usually include training, but the differences between them are many and varied. Dr. DuVernet digs into the role of SMEs in providing information to guide design and development of what she calls knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs), and how they vary between programs designed for training alone and for those that ultimately result in conferral of some certification credential or credentials. 

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Dr. DuVernet observes that “Best practices dictate that both [training-only and certification programs] should start with an analysis of the type of work being performed and the KSAs required to perform that work, as well as a needs analysis to assess gaps between the KSAs and current workforce capabilities.” Let’s chew on this a bit.

Work analysis, often called job task analysis, comes from SMEs who work in the field being tested and who, presumably by virtue of their expertise, not only understand what needs to be done but how a “typical worker” might go about doing it. The needs analysis component comes from looking at where employees doing those tasks are most likely to fall short of meeting basic competency requirements, and attempts to address those gaps by providing information and practice elements to help to close such gaps. Such things are essential for any kind of technical training, as it turns out.

That still leaves open the question of what makes these kinds of program qualitatively different. To that point, Dr. Duvernet’s research finds that performing both forms of analysis — that is, job task and KSA gap analysis — is usually conducted with more rigor and closer attention to the subject matter for certification programs than it is for training-only programs.

The graphs of evidence indicate “the strongest level of SME agreement across all work analyses purposes … occurs when they are providing information for developing certifications.”

She also goes on to state that “…when asked to provide ratings of the importance, frequency, difficulty and other key facets of work SMEs provide consistently higher ratings for certification programs.” She ultimately attributes this difference to “different techniques for soliciting SME information” between the two, but also that “great magnitude placed by SMEs on conferring certification status upon learners.” She also observes that SMEs provide “more consistent work information when it will be used for development of certification programs,” and that “forethought must be used in identifying all of the KSAs that are critical to a profession and determining methods for assessing their presence in individuals seeking to become certified in that profession.”

Does this mean that training-only programs should be avoided in favor of training programs that aim at some certification or another? Not necessarily. That answer will depend on the goals that such training is meant to address. If providing key KSAs and coverage of skills gaps for on-the-job activities is involved, and a certification program exists to address them, and a quality training program is available, then the answer is probably to choose the cert-oriented training. But where training falls outside such boundaries, where compelling evidence of the value of such training is apparent, or where training comes as part of volume purchase or subscription agreements for vendor products or platforms, then maybe not.

It's certainly something to bear in mind if you’re choosing among multiple training options, though. And it does seem to put another mark on the side of the training-for-certification column, too. If you want to get the best bang for your training bucks, it may indeed make sense to try to spend them on training with a relevant certification as one of the possible outcomes, where applicable.