Badging & Certification

IBM awards its three millionth digital badge (and disrupts the labor market in five big ways)

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IBM has recently issued its three millionth digital badge!

What started out as a simple idea to attract talent has turned into the most influential IT credential program in the world. Now, IBM has issued its three millionth badge and hosts about 2,500 activities where badges are issued.

The idea was born in a conference room in Raleigh where a group of IBMers met for an afternoon to figure out how to attract more big data developers to IBM. Ideas were put on whiteboards and paper, and the framework for the badge program emerged.

When it was introduced in 2015, the IBM Digital Badge Program drew many skeptics who feared it would cause significant disruption. Indeed it has.

Here are a five ways this innovation has shaped and transformed learning and development:


1. On-the-job learning is now personal and transportable

Before the introduction of digital badges, most online learning and skills development was captured in a corporate learning management system (LMS) and used to build an employee profile. But badges have changed that. Now that learning and recognition of accomplishment is personal and portable. Employees can receive a digital symbol of accomplishment which can be shared externally, much like a diploma or certificate of completion.

Digital badges have opened a conversation around blockchain, where these records will be immutable, ensuring the record of achievement will not be impacted by any disruption from the credential issuer. This level of security is especially important in areas where providers (like code schools) may close; the student records will never be impacted.


2. Credentials create progression and increase high-stakes skills

When badges entered the scene, many people feared they would negatively impact higher stakes credentials programs, like certifications and certificate programs.  After all, those programs require legally defensible, psychometrically sound instruments and exams. But those fears were allayed when data began to show the opposite: Badges led to an increase in skills and higher pass rates for certifications. Within months of launch, IBM began to track usage and found the average badge earner returned for a second or third badge, deepening skills along a progression path. The IBM Cloud team also conducted research which showed badges led to higher certification test pass rates. The pass rate for the IBM Cloud Developer Certification program increased 57% after progression badges were introduced.

Because badges can lead to progression of skills, IBM has developed a new strategy for its credentials: The IBM Connected Credentials Program.


IBM Connected Credentials

The IBM Connected Credentials Program provides an updated framework designed to establish improved definition and clearer relationships between the different types of IBM digital credentials. This is driven in large part by the need to support unprecedented growth resulting in over 200 unique IBM credential programs offering a combined 2500 badges through a common operational and governance model.

IBM’s new credential framework leverages a strategy that we believe is far more effective at connecting learners to the skills and competencies most valued within the industry and by employers. Credential transparency is improved, making each credential more easily consumed by those who depend on them for making hiring decisions and addressing other talent staffing needs or skills verification.

Our framework to support these objectives across such a large and diverse program begins with the establishment of five primary credentialing categories:

Skill Development Recognition – IBM badges awarded for different levels of assessed learning milestone achievements and discrete level skills demonstration.

Certificate Programs – An IBM badge awarded to early-stage learners for assessed completion of a highly structured and prescriptive learning program. Certificate badges are most commonly issued in support of IBM academic initiative programs, apprenticeship activities and in support of learning programs offered through global MOOC platform providers.

Specialization – An IBM badge most commonly awarded to developing and established practitioners for assessed completion of a structured learning path intended to expand a learner’s job-role expertise within a highly focused topic.

Certification – An IBM badge awarded to established practitioners demonstrating job role and technology expertise through proctored examination and/or performance-based evaluation processes. Requires practical experience, and the assessment process is independent of any specific learning activities.

Special Achievement and Recognition – IBM badges awarded to individuals as a means to reward and recognize give-back contribution, noteworthy career milestones and other exceptional accomplishments.

Each of these five categories has one thing in common – they all use badges compliant with the open technology standard (OBv2) to establish a common language for describing and validating what each IBM digital credential represents. That may seem counter-intuitive to the way many people view digital badges, which are commonly thought of only as nano- or micro-credentials and completely separate from higher stakes credentials such as certification.

The reality is that an IBM badge can be structured to represent a small thing, such as foundational knowledge or a discrete skill – and it can also be structured to represent a large thing, like achievement of a formal advanced level certification. IBM badges are used to document and recognize ALL types and levels of achievements to provide individuals with a detailed record of their ongoing investment toward developing essential competencies.


3. Badges create a talent pool and democratize the labor market

A new OneClass study which polled more than 10,000 current freshmen, sophomores and juniors from 200-plus colleges and universities across the country, found, because of COVID-19, 56% of college students say they’re no longer able to afford tuition. While college completion rates were on the rise just a year ago, the numbers are bound to decline.

In the United States, about 88% graduate from high school, but only 33% complete college. And even after college, many organizations discover their new hires are not prepared for the workforce.

There’s a real surge in the number of modern middle-class jobs in tech that do not require a traditional bachelor’s degree. They’re not blue collar. They’re not white collar. IBM calls them New Collar. These are roles that prioritize capabilities over a traditional degree. They’re in leading technology industry fields like cloud computing and cyber security, digital design and cognitive business. What matters most for these roles is finding people who have the right mix of skills to deliver these capabilities for clients.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, employment of computer and information technology occupations is projected to grow 12% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. These occupations are projected to add about 546,000 new jobs. Demand for these workers will stem from greater emphasis on cloud computing, the collection and storage of big data, and information security.

Certificate programs and badges have emerged as signals of achievement in this unpredictable, rapidly changing world. Technologies have accelerated the pace of change in these new roles to the point where skills become outdated in months, not years. The world needs a better way to build these fast-changing “liquid” skills and issue verified credentials which employers will trust.

When you focus on skills and abilities, not golden pedigrees, you can shift mindsets to make the labor market more diverse and inclusive. You can look beyond traditional talent pools and provide opportunities for people who may have been disenfranchised because of their non-traditional backgrounds, geography or lack of diplomas.


4. Badges increase employee performance

IBM’s human resources department found a correlation between badges and employment:

Engagement: Employees who earn digital badges show higher engagement scores — two points higher — than employees who do not. Among IBM badge recipients, 87% said they are more engaged because of the digital badge program. A full 72% of IBM managers now employ badges to recognize employees for achievement.

Attrition: IBM found that employees with skills level badges are less likely to voluntarily leave IBM.

Sales: At IBM, tech sellers with certification badges are more likely to make their revenue targets than those who do not earn those credentials.


5. Higher ed and industry can now speak the same language

A digital badge can provide all of the information a college or university needs to make a decision on how much value to assign to the activity. The digital badge serves as a proxy transcript for the activity. The Open Badges specification provides a single recognized technical standard for scale and interoperability that makes this possible. IMS Global Learning Consortium ensures badge interoperability in practice by certifying their compliance and keeps implementing organizations current on the evolution of the standards.

Northeastern University was the first university to articulate IBM digital badges for credit toward an advanced degree. The digital badge provides extended value to employees as credit toward a degree, and the school can use digital badges to identify good candidates for their institutions. The interoperability of open badges creates a significant opportunity for transfer credit evaluation, too.


IBM is democratizing IT with its skills programs

Badges serve an important and growing purpose in business. By focusing on skills over degrees and geography, IBM wants to shift mindsets in the IT industry and make tech more diverse and inclusive. We want to bring in people with non-traditional backgrounds who build skills through coding camps, community colleges or modern career education programs like our P-TECH model or apprenticeship program. We want to attract people reentering the workforce or relaunching their careers, and we want to create more jobs for people in parts of the world where tech jobs are scarce. This is about creating tech career opportunities outside the traditional areas. The big picture: IBM has a program for anyone seeking a role in IT.

Badges are part of a broader strategy to rapidly build skills through multiple channels:

  • IBM Skills Gateway: Hosts one of the largest IT training programs in the world and a network of Global Training Providers who provide skills development programs at every level.
  • IBM Skills: Thousands of online courses, free training programs and custom enterprise offerings.
  • SkillsBuild: Provides jobseekers, including those with long-term unemployment, refugees, asylum seekers and veterans, with assessments, training, personalized coaching and the experiential learning they need to re-enter the workforce.
  • Coursera: Certificate Programs, like the IBM Customer Engagement Program, develop skills fast to land a good-paying job.
  • P-TECH: Extends the typical four-year high school to create a seamless six-year academic experience to earn an industry-recognized, two-year post-secondary degree, as well as a high school diploma.
  • IBM Skills Academy: Provides IT training through a network of higher education institutions.
  • IBM Apprenticeships: Allows candidates to develop skills and make real-world contributions – all while earning a paycheck.

Jim Daniels is a senior strategist for IBM’s global digital credentialing strategy. Daniels, working with IBM colleague David Leaser, 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.

David Leaser is the senior executive of strategic growth initiatives for IBM’s Training & Skills program. Leaser developed IBM’s first cloud-based embedded learning solution and the IBM Digital Badge program. He is a Fellow at Northeastern University and a member of the IMS Global Consortium Board advisory group for digital credentials. David has provided guidance to the US Department of Labor and the US Department of Education as an employer subject matter expert. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Pepperdine University and a Master’s Degree from USC’s Annenberg School. Connect with David on LinkedIn and on Twitter.  The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of IBM.

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