Factors to Consider for Building a Successful Certification Exam

Factors to Consider for Building a Successful Certification Exam
Carl Bowman

So you’ve decided to build a certification exam, or maybe you’re building an entire certification program with a suite of exams! Either way, you may have already arrived at the conclusion that building a certification exam is a good idea. After all, there’s plenty of research to suggest that certifications are an excellent way to validate the skills and knowledge of professionals. In fact, the 2014 IT Salary Survey conducted by InformationWeek found that “IT management considered certification more than two times as valuable as an MBA.”1

Certifications can help professionals who wish to advance in their careers, but they can also serve as status symbols for anyone who wants to be recognized as an expert in a certain field. A suite of certifications can be used to enable career paths within an industry, or to enable knowledge paths for professionals to become experts on a vendor’s series of products.

Before building a certification exam, it’s important to conduct in-depth market analysis and research. Market analysis can help you determine the need and potential demand for a certification. The outcome of a market analysis can also provide a keen focus and clear purpose for the certification exam, which can be valuable to the development team that will build the certification.

Contrary to popular belief, building a high-stakes, legally defensible certification exam is a significant undertaking that requires a lot of planning and resources. Acquiring the proper expertise and scheduling the development phases involves time, communication, coordination, and a significant financial commitment. Each phase of the development cycle requires effort on behalf of everyone involved, from surveys to beta exams to exam launch.

But have you considered how you’re going to launch the certification exam? Have you thought about what the target market will be, or the value the certification program will bring to the intended audience? Are there training materials available to prepare candidates for the exam? And why should candidates even bother to take the exam?

You’ve probably heard the saying, “If you build it, they will come,” a line from the film Field of Dreams. While some would like to believe this to be true about developing a product, those of you who have been around the block in the business world know better.

There are many factors to consider prior to building a new product, but there are important aspects of launching, marketing, and distributing a completed product that need to be factored in, as well. The same is also true in the world of certifications.

Here are some aspects of communication to consider when preparing to launch a certification exam:

How will candidates prepare for the exam?

Ensuring the availability of training materials or instructor-led training is essential. Most candidates will at the very least want to review courseware (printed books or online resources) prior to attempting a certification exam. Unless you are providing the courseware, it will be important to point candidates in the right direction to quickly and easily locate and purchase a training solution.

And while this may seem obvious, it’s also important to provide basic information about the exam requirements, expectations, exam objectives, and where and how to register. All of this information should be easily located in clear and concise terms on a website.

Why will candidates want to take the exam?

This is a critical question that should be addressed well in advance of launching a certification product.

If the audience is internal (i.e., your employees will be taking the certification exam), then it will be important to engage with your human resources department to help push the certification exam out to all required employees. The level of support from human resources will have a direct impact on the success and perceived value of the certification program.

Similarly, if the audience is external (i.e., vendors, partners, and other external candidates will be taking the certification exam), it will be important that key representatives within those organizations have a vested interest in promoting the exam to their employees or channel partners. Ideally a “requirement of certification” with a benefit attached (e.g., bonuses, promotions) will go a long way in establishing value for the certification product.

And of course, marketing and promotions will help drive internal and external awareness of the certification product. If requirements or benefits are established in advance, then including the details of such requirements in all marketing efforts will make the message even more valuable to the target audience.

Here are some things to consider that pertain to the distribution of a certification exam:

Where is the audience located? Is security a concern?

If you are thinking about the secure delivery of the exam to a global audience, then the obvious choice might be a computer-based testing platform managed by a vendor that can provide a large channel of secure testing facilities.

On the other hand, if security is not a concern, then a computer-based (i.e., un-proctored) testing platform that offers exam delivery via a standard web browser may be sufficient to reach a global audience.

If the audience is located in a small concentrated region, a large base of global test centers may be unnecessary. Instead, a small, web-based platform with regionally trained proctors will likely suffice.

Are members of the audience familiar with technology, and are they frequent users of tech gadgets?

The use of tablets and/or cell phones to deliver exams may appear to be a modern and mobile solution. However, some users are not tech savvy, so the use of such technology may result in unexpected headaches and a high volume of customer support issues. Therefore, consider the audience’s comfort level with technology before delivering an advanced mobile solution.

Do you need flexibility to deliver the certification exam at local conferences or training centers?

In some cases, you may want to leverage the security offered by a test center delivery model, but also need the flexibility of periodically delivering the exam at a trade show or conference. This may require you to consider multiple exam delivery platforms, depending on your selected vendor’s system capabilities. Be sure to seek wise counsel from knowledgeable experts before embarking down this path. Managing multiple vendors and offering exams via multiple platforms can be become very complex as there are a myriad of logistics to consider.

If you have questions about how to build or deliver a certification exam customized for your needs, contact an Examplify representative at examdev@comptia.org.

1. Murphy, Chris. 2014 US IT Salary Survey. San Francisco: CMP Media, 2014.

Resources for Additional Information

IBM Corporation. The Value of IT Certification. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://public.dhe.ibm.com/partnerworld/pub/certify/valuecert2010.pdf.

Knapp Certification Re-Think Tank. Demonstrating the Value of Certification: A Roadmap to Conducting Meaningful Research. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.knappinternational.com/assets/uploads/pages/roadmap%20for%20certification%20value%20research(1).pdf.

The Manufacturing Institute. National Survey on the Value of a Credentialed Workforce. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.themanufacturinginstitute.org/~/media/C2F93A04AC134EE586066006A86A967E/National_Survey_on_the_Value_of_a_Credentialed_Workforce.pdf.

Training Industry, Inc. The Sum of Its Parts: Understanding the True Value of Accounting Certifications. Accessed January 14, 2016. http://www.trainingindustry.com/professional-education/articles/the-sum-of-its-parts-understanding-the-true-value-of-accounting-certifications.aspx.

TrueAbility, Inc. The Value of Performance-Based Certification & Training for the IT Industry. Accessed January 14, 2016. https://trueability.com/case_studies/value_of_performance_based_certification_training_information_technology.pdf.