Building a Certification Program

Most of us have either heard of someone being certified to do something or maybe we have been through a certification process ourselves. Depending on the certification, the process could be to simply take a test. Or, it could be more involved such as to include one or more of the following: multiple exams, training, education degrees, experience, recommendations, and demonstration projects.

But how does a certification program come into existence? What needs to be considered? Again, it depends. But there are some core aspects that are the same for any certification program development effort.

Certification Program Life-cycle

When you remind yourself that any project has the same basic phases, it becomes easier to imagine where the rest of the detail fall into place. The illustration to the right shows a basic product life-cycle from project to operations. Depending on the product, the titles of the phases could be fine-tuned but these are good enough for exploring how a certification program can be developed.


The analysis process identifies the skills and knowledge an individual must demonstrate in order to be considered competent in a particular discipline or domain at a predefine level. The outcome of this effort should include, at a minimum, a list of competencies and the terminal objectives that help define the competencies. The actions or verbs (see Blooms Taxonomy for an example) in the objectives will shape the type of assessment required to measure competency.


The design process looks at what it will take to assess someone’s ability to meet the objectives and thus demonstrate the competencies. This is where decisions are made regarding exam(s) and the types of questions on the exam. It also looks at other methods for assessing competency, such as work experience or projects. Then there is the consideration that knowing enough to pass a test is not a complete measure of competency. Successful completion of specific training and/or education may be required to demonstrate competency as well.

The design should also include the products and processes required for the operations part of the program. What will be needed in order to run the show? Are there any legal requirements that need to be met when administering the program? Are there any systems or tools that need to be created in order to manage the certification program once it is launched? Systems include both human and technology components so each need to be planned.


Now it is time to put pen to paper and create the components that are the certification program. This includes the exam(s) and their questions, the descriptions and objectives for any training/education requirements there might be, the actual training/educational experiences, and a rubric that evaluates experience (if there is one). During this phase, the program should be tested and evaluated to determine if developed components can successfully predict that someone has the competencies required.

Development includes the production of any systems or tools identified during design phase. Define and document the policies and procedures that will govern how operations will be performed. Testing for systems and tools should follow standard test and evaluation processes.


Implementation means many things. When it comes to the certification program, it probably includes a marketing campaign, resources that explain the program, information about becoming a certified training organization, and so on. It could also include the launch of training programs that have been developed as part of the project.

Implementation for the system and tools should follow standard practices for the given type of system. There may need to be training to enable staff to perform the operations tasks.


Given most certification programs are focused on a product or process that changes over time, the maintenance processes and procedures should be performed in accordance with what was designed and implemented. At a minimum, there are two processes that can occur. Option 1, the program goes back into the project mode (on a regular basis) and the existing competencies and objectives are analyzed, new program components are developed if needed, and the updates are implemented. The other option is to simply make additions to the program to address new product or process components. Or, a combination of both can be done. The maintenance process should be designed during the project and sufficient resources provided to support maintenance once the program is in operations.


With certification comes responsibility. Who is going to maintain the list of people who have been certified? Depending on the certification requirements, how will someone’s certification progress be tracked and granted? Who will coordinate the efforts of those involved with the training/education tracks? Who will offer the training? How will work experience be evaluated and by whom? These are only a few questions that need answers in place when the program launches.

Project Management

This articles only highlights the basics of what needs to be done when developing a certification program. Other factors to consider are funding and management support of which neither is small. What also needs to be defined is the how. How will each phase be conducted? At the heart of the “how” is the subject matter expert (SME), the person(s) who will decide what it is that people need to know. The SME will be a success factor that is often the hardest asset to predict or control.


There are many benefits to be gained by certification program, both for the organization hosting the certification as well as the individuals being certified. For more information regarding certification, consider looking resources such as the National Organization for Competency Assurance and to name a couple.

Published by Cindy McCourt

I wear many hats: author, website planner, Drupal consultant, instructional designer, trainer.

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