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Monday, June 4, 2012

Professionally Certifiable

Certifiable Certainty 

We Project and Program Managers are all too aware of the distress, when we suddenly discover that the intellectual capital of our Senior Analyst or Designer (or Team of Designers) just doesn’t measure up to the quality, complexity and maturity required for the project.
It is then that you wish there was some way that you can know effectively and for a fact, what the abilities are of the people assigned or selected for the project, and how they will measure up to the demands of the work.
Certification programs attempt to provide some perspective or “standard” for competence and ability. However, as we’ve seen in the past, especially in I.T. product certifications, that certification leaves a lot to be desired. 
One can often have a candidate with all the letters of the alphabet in certifications, from who knows which authority in Mumbai, and find that he still lacks the common sense to be a useful I.T. Professional. 
Vendor certifications in particular are suspect when one considers how easily they are obtained by the I.T. graduate masses.
CIO Publisher Gary Beach talks about why there is a need for a national enterprise software certification, in his April edition of the  podcast. I’ve had a similar conversation with Doug White of the New Zealand Computer Society in 2005. 
Therefore, I thought this the ideal opportunity to add my voice, and also suggest a possible alternative approach to certification, I’ve pioneered successfully over the last four years in the New Zealand market. This approach should benefit both managers of I.T. Services business and the people working in these companies.
An Afterthought

As a start, certifications is supposed to verify competence. 
Competence on the other hand requires, skill, and experience with the latter taking a fair time to acquire, coupled with a few mistakes, before it becomes reality. 
However, if you analyze the speed at which new certifications are available when new product solutions are launched, one has to question if the vendor’s own staff are in fact “certified” with both skill and experience. This is doubtful by the time most products hit the street.
Once upon a time (not so long ago), when software and hardware vendors were a dime a dozen, certification became one option whereby more “credibility” was attached to a technology play. However, times have changed. 
Technology are becoming more “open” and interoperable. Being proprietary with the added constraints of a complicated required certification to effectively use the tools, is no longer sitting well with the corporate main stream customers, I.T. professionals and their managers.
It is no surprise therefore that a fifteen year old, that barely passed the 10th Grade could be the “uber hacker” responsible for that mission critical piece of open source interface, that is driving your brand new global VOIP corporate communications system. Guess what - he has no interest in any certifications whatsoever. He probably wrote or hacked the interface one night, out of frustration with not having enough money on his prepay mobile phone, to call his girlfriend. 
Too often certifications appears to initiate supposed competence instead of verifying it. 
For example: The PMP certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI) tries to verify some level of experience as criterium for obtaining their certification. 
Unfortunately, with more employers requiring their project managers to be PMP certified, they are inadvertently removing the motivated graduate, or career junior without a PMP certification from their accessible resource pool. 
The PMP certification therefore no longer only verifies competence, but becomes the necessary entry ticket to the market. More and more new entrants therefore has to devise ways and means for obtaining this certification before their careers can actually “begin”. 
This Blog entry is not there to criticize certifications.
Rather, let’s have a closer look at an alternative way to solve the problem that certifications are claiming to solve. 
I think there is relative good consensus that the initiative of certification is there to provide some form of professional competence rating and, or verification. The question is: “How do we know that this professional is as competent as he or she claims to be, and how will this competence serve my project or initiative?”
Profiling versus Certification

One of my clients has a strategic resource initiative not dissimilar to many I.T. services organizations. This client claims to strive to put the “Best Athlete or Employee in the Right Position or Assignment”. This is yet another way to ask the question: “Do I have the right competence for the job on hand?” 
While asking this question, it is evident that the organization recognizes the fundamental importance of professional competence, for success in their  business.
To successfully answer the question of competence, or right person for the job, one has to answer three prior questions first, which is equally valid for the certification community: 
  • What is the “job, position or assignment”?
  • What is meant with “competence”? and
  • How do these two factors relate to each other to portray I.T. Professional Competence?
To answer the first question of the “job”, is relatively simple in the larger context. There are commonly accepted operating frameworks like ITIL, RUP and other, that go out of their way to define what it is we do in I.T., and how it should be done. 
It is only a small step away to consolidate these requirements, and define a set of non-overlapping jobs or roles that are generic in the I.T. industry and that supports the main stream operating practices and processes. 
We have done this work for you. You can get a view of the generic I.T. Role sets and definitions here. I have also compiled sample job profiles here that you are allowed to use with permission. This will help you to have a solid view of the job that delivers the process outcomes within the delivery framework.
The answer to the second question - that of “competence” for the “job” - is a little harder. Instead of certification, I am proposing a more scientific approach of “Profiling”. 
“Profiling” as noun is defined as the recording and analysis of a person’s psychological and behavioral characteristics, so as to assess or predict their capabilities in a certain context, or to assist in identifying a particular sub-group of people. Profiling, is the extrapolation of information about something, based on known qualities.
When we seek a better understanding of professional competence, will we not be better off by looking at the individual from several perspectives, and not only from the limited product or tool specific perspective offered by the next multiple choice certification exam? 
We can then use this information to extrapolate the ideal and required level of competence relative to the professional’s peers.
I propose that we need a more comprehensive profile of our I.T. Professional - the person - to know if he or she is the right individual for the defined job on hand. 
Then, once we have the profile information, we are still left with the requirement to measure “competence”. Unless we can measure and quantify, we cannot compare. Comparison is the only way we can know that I.T. Professional A is the better candidate for the defined job on hand, than I.T. Professional candidate B.
The I.T. Competence Profile

A profile of an I.T. Professional needs to be as comprehensive as possible, and also quantifiably measurable. 
I’ve found that defining the Professional from four key perspectives or categories of competence, that decreases in importance, to be the most effective and comprehensive approach to meet the above requirements. 
The four perspectives are:
  • The Foundation: A Professional’s natural talents or strengths. This is the most important perspective because it is material in influencing competence in all other competence categories. It is also the hardest (and near impossible) to change or develop rapidly through training or mentoring.
  • General I.T. Professional Competence: This refers to the basic skills and experience common and required across the job spectrum. All I.T. Professionals require this as a base to work in the industry.
  • I.T. Role Competence: This category of competence refers to the Professionals knowledge and skill in doing the job on hand, how to conduct him or herself within the standard processes and which tasks to execute. It takes years to develop this competence through training, mentoring and experience.
  • I.T. Tool Competence: This category refers to the Professional’s skills and knowledge with using the tools on hand. This may be the current and prevailing software and hardware tools (programming languages, platforms, devices, etc.) or business techniques that distinguishes the professional’s ability to do his or her job productively. This category is listed last in importance, because it is the one area where knowledge and skills can be rapidly acquired. It is also the category where vendors make it their business to innovate and improve on yesterday’s products, which means that today’s knowledge and skill will probably be out of date very soon (within months).
Typically the Profile includes the following Information:
The Foundation

The foundation of the Profile is the person’s natural talents, abilities or strengths. These refer to the person’s perspective on his or her reality, or also called his or her frame of reference. It defines what the person does naturally well. 
It can also be referred to as the psychometric part of the Profile. 
This forms the foundation of the profile, because it is a perspective that is very hard to change. If a Professional has a natural analytic approach to his environment, with little strategic perspective, then it is very hard and some reckon impossible, to develop the non prevailing strategic abilities of the person.
I have found the Gallup Organization's and Marcus Buckingham’s StrengthsFinder® the most useful and simplest tool to use to identify these foundational perspectives or strengths of a person. 
During the assessment Gallup identifies the five key strengths of a person. This determines what a resource is naturally doing well. The objective is to create the scope for your organization or project to know and capitalize on the natural talents of the person.
General Professional Competence

Every Professional requires competence and basic skills in communication, documenting, facilitation, problem solving, time management and others. 
This assessment determines the competence level of the individual for these basic abilities relative to the role that the individual plays in the organization.
Profile-IT has developed a measurement instrument based on a self and validated assessment that helps to classify an individual’s current levels of capability against an industry expectation and norm.
IT Professional Role Competence

Depending on the position or job the individual has or would like to have in an organization, he/she will be expected to fulfill a number of roles within the I.T. Service processes. 
The I.T. Professional Competence Assessment is modeled from a number of sources but corresponds most closely to the role specification embodied in the IBM Rational Unified Process (RUP®), ITIL, CMM® and other professional IT delivery methodologies, and includes the following basic role groups:
  • Analysts: The Analysts role set is a grouping of roles primarily involved in eliciting and investigating requirements.
  • Design and Implementers:  The Design Implementer role set organizes those roles primarily involved in designing and implementing solutions.
  • Managers: The Manager set organizes roles primarily involved in managing and configuring the software engineering and service delivery processes.
  • Operations and Support: Operations and support roles are those roles not directly related to the definition, management, development, and test of a solution, but are needed in order to support the software development process, or in order to produce additional materials required by the final product. Example of such roles are System Administrator, Tools Specialist, Support Analyst, and other support roles.
Here too, Profile-IT has developed a set of measurement instruments based on self and validated assessments, that helps to classify an individual’s current levels of capability against an industry expectation and norm.
I.T. Tool Competence
This is the traditional playground of I.T. vendor certifications.  As stated above, this category focus on getting a view of the I.T. professionals knowledge and experience in working with the I.T. tools of their speciality area.
Typical assessments include:
  • Base Technical Knowledge: This assessment determines the person's knowledge and experience within an operating environment, knowledge of a base programming languages, and knowledge of data persistence management platforms. This category identifies the foundation knowledge on which packages and applications are built. If a candidate is strong in knowledge and experience within this category it is likely that he or she will be quick to take up any new package, tool or application that uses the base technology as foundation.
  • Package and Application Knowledge and Experience: This assessment determines the person's knowledge and experience with devices, packages, tools and applications. This category changes frequently depending on the market demand, and vendor prominence. The uptake of knowledge and experience within this category is usually fast, always changing, and quickly driven to obsolescence by market pressures.
  • Industry Knowledge and Achievements: This category only lists (based on feedback obtained from the Professional) the professional's wider understanding of technology application within particular industries, with specific reference to the professionals accomplishments during his career with employers and clients within these industries.

Life will be substantially easier on the I.T. Management profession if the above information on each I.T. Professional in our resource group is on hand and easily accessible to us, the manager. 
It will allow educated decisions on which resources will be more successful in accomplishing which tasks (relative to cost and time). We will also then have empirical information based on performance histories to further modify and refine the profiling approach.
For the I.T. Professional, it is a testimony to their abilities relative to the wider resource pool. It highlights their strengths, which they can lushly apply to their work, and it also provides important feedback on their development opportunities and progress in becoming more competent professionals.
There is one small fly in the ointment though: I have found that in practice people are so precious and sensitive to their privacy that even if the above information is readily available, that the possibility for it to be seen as grounds for discrimination is always present. Also, for as long as these assessments are commercial driven (like is the case with certifications) it risks losing its credibility to truly testify to the value of an I.T. Professional to his client, employer and the industry.
In the absence of trustworthy, quantifiable information (or certifications), we as managers are yet again fallible, and reliant on our trusting instincts and gut feelings when we select our teams (and the experience gained from expensive and painful mistakes). 
The day certifications can become a management tool like the above profiling approach recommends, I argue, then that it will get the necessary focus and commitment from the industry, to make it work. Everybody in I.T. should benefit.
What remains is finding an impartial non-commercial driven entity that will administer such a tool. I am open to suggestions.
Your comments are always welcome.
Hendrik van Wyk

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