Certification is not competence

Back in the 1500s, medical practice in England was poorly regulated. ‘Physicians’ worked with no formal training or knowledge and it is likely that they killed as many patients as they cured. In the early 16th century leading physicians wanted power to be able to grant licences to those with proper qualifications and to punish unqualified practitioners and ‘quacks’ who engaged in malpractice. 

In 1518 Thomas Linacre petitioned Henry VIII for permission to establish a college of physicians for the purpose of granting licenses to practice, and to punish “unqualified” practitioners. Over time this became the Royal College of Physicians in London. Prospective doctors had to pass exams to prove they were classically educated and possessed the right medical knowledge. 

However, it was the medieval guilds that adopted certification which resulted in it becoming a mainstream business. The guilds consisted of artisans and merchants who would get together to share trade secrets and control who could practice their craft. To maintain credibility and work quality, they also oversaw the training and education of prospective members. They even developed trade-specific signs that hung in front of their workshops as an easy way for illiterate customers to find them.

Certification in the modern world

Certification covers a spectrum of education and training from school qualifications to training courses, tertiary and post graduate degrees and diplomas. There is a persistent assumption that when a certificate is issued, the holder is competent in the subject. However, there are numerous examples that this is not the case.

Certificates are issued for a number of reasons:

  • To mark attendance at a course or event
  • To mark completion of a programme
  • To mark achievement of specified criteria – such as a pass mark in assessments

Certification means qualification.   But,  having a qualification,  by education or training, does not necessarily indicate that the person is competent.  Competence means successful demonstration of all competencies in the qualification topic (s).

Training certifications often cover broad topics such as Change Management.  For such certificates there is no guarantee that the participant will;

  • have all the relevant knowledge
  • be able to demonstrate the whole range of skills involved
  • be able to apply this knowledge and skill appropriately in a different context from the training environment.

Educational qualifications are broader still.   We can all relate to the many cases where a teaching degree does not mean its holder is competent teaching in the classroom.

Why is this?

The Problem of Training Transfer

Training transfer is the ability to apply learnings from an artificial training situation to practical problems on the job, on an ongoing basis.

Transfer of learning to workplace situations needs to cover cases where:

  • the tasks are more complex
  • creative thinking is needed
  • problem solving is needed
  • learning must be adapted to changing circumstances.

Essentially it must be applied to tasks that are not identical to those in the learning environment.  This requires recognition that there is a difference.  Followed by understanding and the application of principles or rules to a new situation.

Aspects of training design that promote transfer are:

  • repeated practice
  • avoiding cognitive overload – too much information
  • use of multiple examples
  • examples of errors
  • activity based learning.

Research shows that on average as little as 10% of learnings are transferred and used on the job.   Even in cases where transfer is initially good (around 60%) use of learnings drops significantly after 6 months, and a year later only half of the learnings are typically in use.

It is a mistake to assume that training certifications indicate competence.

Educational qualifications are assumed to last for many years despite the fact that our knowledge base is rapidly changing. In professional disciplines – especially healthcare – a system of continuing education credits is required for practising certification to be maintained.  These credits are for course attendance, often on-line.

The problem is that the course content may not be absorbed well and may not transfer to the work situation.

Continuing education does not guarantee competence

For some activities that involve risk to life – such as CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) there is a requirement to demonstrate competence is maintained. This is done by knowledge test and skills demonstration.  Certifications for such competencies typically last only 24 months, and some must be re-assessed annually.

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