Implementing a Stackable Strategy: A Discussion with NFWA and ATD

The concept of “stackable” credentials may not be new, but adoption of this model has been relatively slow. Transitioning from a traditional certification model and adopting a stackable strategy is a significant change. While it is becoming a more popular approach, particularly in the education space, examples of successful transitions are hard to find. In an industry that often shares best practices, real-life experiences help organizations explore new concepts and plan for potential action. It’s time then to open the dialogue and learn from organizations that have implemented a stackable strategy.

Let’s first define what “stackable” means. The Department of Labor defines it as part of sequence of credentials that can be accumulated over time to build up the individual’s qualifications and help them to move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to different and potentially higher-paying jobs. The sequence is often a stepped approach that can include education, certificate programs, and/or credentials.

In this interview, Credentialing Insights talks with two organizations about their experience and advice after implementing a stackable strategy. The National Wood Flooring Association (NWFA) has a portfolio of six professional certifications with four serving as the primary focus for most of the membership. After approximately two years of development, NWFA launched its revamped credentialing portfolio under the umbrella of the NWFA University, an online educational portal that housed the stepped, or stackable, system.

The Association of Talent Development (ATD), an organization serving professionals who help others achieve their full potential by improving their knowledge, skills, and abilities in the workplace, transitioned to its “Stackable Framework” to allow candidates to combine skills, education, years of experience, and certifications to customize a credentialing pathway. 

An interview featuring:

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Brett Miller
Vice President of Education & Certification, NWFA
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Holly Batts, MS, CAE, PMP
Associate Director, Credentialing, ATD
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It might be helpful to start at the beginning. Both NWFA and ATD stress the importance of having a well thought-out strategy behind this decision. What motivated your organizations to develop a transition strategy from a traditional to a stackable model?

Miller: Our education and certification is all housed within the NWFA University, which we launched in 2016. Prior to its launch, our primary certifications were based on a written test with 75 items and a hands-on performance assessment. Discussion of a new model started with the vision of our organization’s new CEO, who was committed to bringing a comprehensive online training program and expanded certification options to the industry. NFWA had existing content, including globally accepted technical guidelines, which could be used as the basis for new programming. Through the process of researching options for developing and launching the NWFA University, it became clear that we could build a stackable credentialing system that would provide value to the industry and members.

Batts: ATD offered a variety of valuable content and products that, upon examination, seemed to logically fit into segments along the continuum of an individual’s career, giving them the skills and knowledge they needed as they advanced. We started exploring structures that would allow our stakeholders to create individualized or customized paths for professional development. These customized paths could include education, certificate programs, and certifications.

What process did you use to identify the pathways, or “steps,” in the model?

Miller: As we mapped our existing content to specific competencies, the pathways for certification organically emerged. It became clear that our existing content fit into smaller, more narrowly focused segments. In our case, they are 15-20 minute modules with a 10-question assessment. This allows the user to digest smaller segments of content with an assessment.

Batts: The ATD Stackable Framework is the result of a competency modeling project to map ATD’s existing products and content to a professional’s career development. Through that process, we were also able to identify areas in which new products or content were needed. It was helpful to visually capture what the new, stepped framework looked like both for our internal leadership and staff, but also the external stakeholders. With the visual (below) we could guide stakeholders through the process, explaining the value of each step along the way.  

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What has the reaction to the new model been? Has the membership and industry embraced it or has there been any push back? 

Miller: In the planning stages, we did not envision this level of success as rapidly as we have seen it. Within two years, 75 percent of the NFWA University users are new learners to our organization. These are professionals who otherwise may not have engaged with us.

To date, we have had more than 6,000 users who have completed more than 32,000 courses on NWFAU, with nearly 10,000 digital badges issued. We have seen less engagement among our more veteran members and practitioners, but we do see business owners who rely on the University and stackable model as a comprehensive model for professional development and to monitor their employees’ career pathway. Our industry can sometimes espouse a "this is how it was always done" approach, however, our CEO presented the comprehensive vision for this project and the volunteer leadership was in full support of moving forward.

Batts: The Stackable Career Development Framework gives our professionals a manageable approach to credentialing in which they can tackle “bite-size” pieces of content throughout their career. To help smooth the transition, the initial focus was on creating tools to help the current certificants and future candidates learn how to navigate the framework and proactively alleviate some of the anxiety that can come with change.

What advice would you give to organizations considering a stackable model?

Miller: The most important advice I have is to have a strong vision and put the right team in place to implement it. After reviewing the options for developing and launching the system, including third-party vendors, NWFA hired an in-house educational specialist to develop the framework. For our organization, credentialing is important and we place high value on the credentials we offer. For some industries, digital badges and credentialing may not mean as much, but we focus on rigor in the stackable model to ensure ongoing value. If a member becomes certified and uses their badge to display that accomplishment, we want them to be proud of that.

Batts: It is important to carefully evaluate competencies across a professional’s career and connect all the pieces, including how current content and products fit into the framework. Communicating the value of each offering into the overall model is essential in helping individuals understand the pathway. Consider the transition strategically and answer the questions of why it is important to the profession and to the organization. Determine clear goals and determine the model that fits best with your profession and culture. Think of this as an opportunity.

What is next for your program(s)?

Miller: We continue to consider how we can encourage our members to better use their digital credentials to promote themselves and, hopefully, build NWFA’s brand. Our organization has always had a consumer-focused site where consumers can find a service provider. With our new stackable model, we have added a ranking system based on the credentials earned by providers. This type of model provides additional reward for continuing professional development and gives another purpose to the digital badges.

Batts: We continue to look at the value of certification and the stackable model to the employers of our certificants to understand how they perceive the framework. In version 2.0, we will continue to evaluate how maintenance of certification fits into the stackable framework and how we communicate the value of this to certificants.

Related Resources

Further reading: 5 Things You Should Know About Stackable Credentials

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