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Open Badges vs. Certifications: Is there a battle brewing in the IT credential market?

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By David Leaser

The latest Certification Magazine Salary Survey has been published, and if you look at the list, you’ll see a dramatically different list than you would have seen even two years ago. What has changed? Look at the titles. A few years ago, the list was more focused on product certifications. Indeed, IBM and other IT manufacturers have always created product-centric certifications to support the success of their product installations. But on this year’s list, the certifications have become more role-based. Why?

Cloud is disrupting the credential space

Cloud is disrupting the IT technical certification business. Just a few years ago, most IT products were released on an 18- to 24-month cycle. New certifications accompanied them. But with the advent of cloud delivery, product updates can be released constantly, often on a 45- to 60-day lifecycle. How can certifications keep up? Who is interested in taking a product certification every few months? And how will an organization afford to develop new certifications on that timeline? Developing good IT certifications is expensive and time-consuming.

The emergence of micro-credentials and Open Badges

In just a few short years, Open Badges have barnstormed into the accreditation space, providing a unique way to issue a credential which can be shared instantly on social sites – the perfect marriage between social media and credentials/recognition. Badges can be issued for a wide variety of activities, like course completions or proof of a real skill or competence.

When someone (like a potential employer) clicks on the badge, valuable details about the activity are surfaced, including a description of the event, skills which were developed and verifiable evidence, linking directly to the actual activity, task or achievement. And, with Open Badges, a badge earner can quickly build social eminence by adding credentials to LinkedIn profiles, Facebook activity streams and Twitter feeds.

Badges and Certifications: Do they complement each other?

Open Badges were never designed, nor intended, to serve as mini-certifications. Where a certification is an activity in itself (usually an exam), a badge is a digital representation of an existing activity, like the completion of a class, an assessment or a demonstration of skills or abilities.

Certifications can benefit greatly from Open Badges and, in fact, create more demand. Here are three examples:

1. Badge certification exams

By issuing badges to certification holders, you can dramatically increase the social media exposure for the certification. Where a handful of people may see a paper certificate hanging on a wall in a cubicle, hundreds or thousands of people will see the digital representation of the certification when it is shared in social media.

2. Create progression activities

In karate, after you earn your green belt, you typically want to earn the black belt. Similarly, by issuing badges for small, bite-sized activities that lead up to a certification, you will increase the likelihood the earner will continue all the way to the certification exam. Badges help get people on the “leader board” by making it easy (and rewarding) to start the journey. In a recent limited study, IBM saw certification exam pass rates increase by double digits when the test takers first earned progression badges.

3. Issue continuing education credits

If you earn a certification every two years, how will you show the world you are current in technology in between exams? Here is where badges can complement certifications by providing “continuing education” credentials for skills which are more “liquid.” Badges also provide a way to keep certification holders engaged beyond the test, maintaining a relationship with the test taker until the next release of the certification.

Can Open Badges increase the shelf life of certifications?

Certifications provide a valuable credential in the IT business, especially in areas where security, legal defensibility and psychometrically sound assessments are a requirement. In fact, here are at least four areas where certifications provide an essential credential:

1. Must be legally defensible and psychometrically sound

2. Is required by an industry governing body (i.e. to certify knowledge around an industry standard for legal purposes)

3. Is required for safety or security

4. Is required by state law or license

But, with technology changing so quickly, how can you create a certification program which has a long shelf life of, say 24 months? Perhaps the T-skills model is the answer, where certifications provide core, essential and foundational knowledge. Badges can then be layered or stacked onto the certification to represent deep skills in areas where technology is changing more frequently.


That model also provides additional value to certifications, because badges can be stacked onto a core certification to represent a specialization or an advanced designation. Imagine the personalized credential programs you can create.

Disruption is inevitable, and the future is uncertain. So, we can’t stand still.

Rapid changes in the IT space and the rise of social media have disrupted the IT credential space, I say for the better. There are now more incentives than ever to earn credentials because of the value they provide building social eminence in ways not possible before. The transparency in badges makes it easy for employers to see and verify what knowledge, skills, passions and abilities a credential represents – at the nano level. And credential issuers can now create programs which are far more relevant and tailor-made for industries and lines of business.

Your turn: What do you think?

How do you think Open Badges and Certifications will exist in the IT credential world? What do you think companies like IBM should do to transform credential programs to fit your needs and the needs of the future workforce? Let’s crowdsource the future together.

Want to earn an IBM Open Badge?

IBM only issues badges for resume-worthy activities; you cannot receive an IBM badge just for showing up. But IBM has developed badges for every level, from introductory skills to advanced certifications. So, you can earn an IBM badge by completing a selected activity, like a free online course in, participating in a Bluemix function, completing select IBM certifications, contributing to developerWorks or passing a selected course at one of IBM’s Global Training Providers, including Arrow, Avnet and LearnQuest. So why not earn your first badge today — and then post it automatically to your LinkedIn profile — to see how badges works and how it may benefit you? Go to IBM’s Open Badge site to get started right now! Here’s a video to show you more!


David Leaseris the senior manager of innovation for IBM’s Training & Skills organization. Leaser developed IBM’s first cloud-based learning solution and is the author of a number of thought leadership white papers on talent development, including “Migrating Minds” and “The Social Imperative in Workforce Development.” Leaser has trained more than 4,000 clients and developed more than 30 technology training manuals and video tutorials. You can reach David on LinkedIn or Twitter @david_leaser.

IBM is actively helping the world solve the talent gap, and the IBM Open Badge Program is just one example.

To find out more, please join the conversation on our websites and social networks:

WW IBM Training Home Page
Training Search
Contact IBM Global Training Provider
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To contact one of IBM’s authorized IBM Global Training Providers or to search for IBM courses that use official IBM created content, please visit

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