Badging & Certification

IBM Connected Credentials: Recognizing Skill Development and Progression

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There has been no end to the number of articles written over the past few years about the pros and cons of digital badging as this form of credentialing has grown in popularity. Most of what is reported is largely positive, and that has certainly been IBM’s experience over the nearly six years since developing and launching our own digital badging program. In fact, what we now refer to as the IBM Connected Credential program, powered by the Credly Acclaim digital credentialing platform, is successful beyond our wildest expectations. But that success didn’t come overnight. We are constantly measuring, assessing and adjusting our program to drive greater value for our credential issuers, earners and consumers. This is the single most important priority in our program governance and operational model and a key factor for any credential program’s success.

There are certainly many other program elements and operational needs that go into building and managing a digital credentialing strategy as large as IBM’s. There are now over 200 defined credentialing programs across IBM’s eco-system encompassing approximately 2,500 individual badged activities at any given time. A program of this scale requires continuous care and feeding, and most importantly, a framework that can be applied universally across the enterprise regardless of program type or need.

IBM has implemented a comprehensive credentialing framework to recognize the full spectrum of what you know, what you can do, and what you have mastered where recognition of knowledge, skills and abilities are concerned. This can be anything from recognition of discrete level learning outcomes and milestones all the way through to advanced levels of profession and technology certification. We didn’t stop there. We also utilize badging to recognize various types of contribution related activities, covering activities as diverse as community volunteer programs to technical content authoring. But for the balance of this article, we’ll focus on a subset of IBM’s digital credential program established specifically for skill development and progression achievement and recognition.

The Learning Journey is as Important as the Destination

Many badging strategies across commercial enterprises focus primarily on formal certification programs. This is a terrific application for badging and a great way to get started with launching a badge program. But there are other areas where badging can be effectively applied to improve the learner experience. Education and training programs that are part of the journey toward becoming certified are often lengthy and include important skill development milestones that are worth recognizing with digital credentials. Or perhaps there are skill development programs that don’t lead to a certification. Whatever the case, IBM long ago established that significant value is achievable when leveraging digital credentialing for the following:

  • Individual courses (hours to days to complete)
  • Critical learning milestones (days to weeks to complete)
  • Comprehensive learning paths (weeks to months to complete)

The modern worker’s skill set is more fluid than ever before and requires updating existing expertise and learning brand new skills on an almost continuous basis. And while certification programs work well for aggregating skills recognition into a single validated and verifiable credential, they don’t always cover the full spectrum of skills required in our jobs or have the ability to surface newly acquired skills in real-time. In other words, it’s essential to expand credentialing across skill development and progression learning activities to have a more complete and current record of knowledge, skills and abilities.

Who benefits from this approach?

  • The credential earner benefits from this approach by having a more complete, verifiable record of their skills investment and proven commitment toward learning.
  • The credential issuer achieves greater insight around skills readiness, gaps and trends that can help make smarter decisions on when, where and to whom education activities should be focused.
  • Credential consumers can make better informed decisions for ongoing skills development, resource management and mobilization, hiring, promotion and other talent management needs.

These are only a few of the measured observations made over the operational lifespan of IBM’s digital credential program. We know from continued analysis that thoughtful and well-structured skills development and recognition programs lead directly to increased learning engagement and completion. We see the enthusiasm of learners who have earned an IBM badge through the prolific sharing of their IBM digital badges across internal and public social media channels, and those actions attract and motivate others to engage and earn an IBM digital badge for themselves.

The data shown in figure 1. best illustrates these points. It not only visualizes the increased engagement trend over the lifecycle of IBM’s digital credentialing program, but it also shows the increase in the program’s Net Promotor Score (NPS) results over much of the same timeline.

Figure 1

Key Takeaways

We have seen many observations documented and shared over the years that attempt to explain the purpose of badges, how best to utilize them, and other advice that may or may not have been supported by front-line experience or measures of success. Here are just a few observations based on IBM’s nearly six years of front-line experience building and managing an enterprise-level digital credential program.

  • If the achievement or contribution is worthy of being documented and recognized, a business case already exists to at least explore the use badging as a way to handle this need.
  • “Too many badges dilute the value of the overall program.” While the risk is real, it is easily avoided with the right framework and credential classification structure in place.
  • “Badges are different from certification”. While this was a widely accepted point of view a few years ago, it is no longer the case. In fact, the comparison doesn’t really make sense today. A digital badge – based on the Open Badges OBv2 standard – is an open source digital documentation method for capturing detailed information about an achievement and embedding it as metadata into a portable image file for web-based validation and verification. In other words, badges can be used to document anything, including achievement of certification.
  • Well-designed credentialing program governance and operational policy is a must for any program incorporating digital badging. Set goals, measure and evaluate, and be willing to make changes. Success may not be instantaneous, but it will follow soon enough if these elements are in place and managed effectively.
  • Digital badging programs that include recognition of both small and big achievements are more effective at attracting and engaging participants. This approach is also more effective at helping credential earners build a more detailed personal brand through the badges they earn, and subsequently helping them earn professional eminence among their peers and colleagues.

Digital badges serve an important and growing purpose in business. By expanding the use of badges to recognize more detailed skill development and progression activities, IBM has instilled greater purpose and value into our Connected Credentials program, improved the learner experience, and have greater insight into talent development and education program outcomes – all of which translate to the ultimate goal of creating a better experience for our clients.

Jim Daniels is a senior strategist for IBM’s global digital credentialing strategy. Daniels was responsible for designing and implementing the operations and governance model used to support the IBM Digital Badge Program worldwide. He is an advisory board member for University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business and also serves as a client advisory board member for New York based digital credential platform provider Credly, Inc. Jim has consulted extensively with numerous other organizations who have launched successful digital badging programs and is a noted speaker and subject matter expert on credential program operations, governance and data-driven measurements of success.

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