Message from the Executive Director: Disruptive Innovation, or Something Else?

I’m a fan of innovation. Who isn’t? Innovators drive the marketplace and the future. Think: Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Nikola Tesla. Thomas Edison. The list goes on. I’m also a fan of those who put forward interesting theories about innovation. One of the leading innovation theorists is Clayton Christiansen, who has famously written about disruptive innovation in business:

A disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.


I understand this concept in the abstract and appreciate the well-known examples (rise of the personal computer disrupting mainframes, cellphone technology disrupting fixed line, retail medical clinics disrupting traditional doctor’s offices). Often the disruptor enters the marketplace through a backdoor left open by the more expensive or commanding dominators.

Lately, I’ve observed a mini-trend, where this theory of disruption is applied to certification. I’ve heard some in the credentialing community provocatively sound the death knell on “traditional” certification, with certificate programs and micro-credentialing concepts cited as disruptors.

I’m both intrigued and concerned.

A provocateur will say that micro-credentialing and assessment based certificate programs will eventually compete with, rather than complement, certification as we know it. For me, these programs are companions to, not competitors of, certification, each with a distinct business model, purpose and strategy.

But apparently, many — including upcoming generations — may disagree. Millennials have a well-documented expectation to change careers (not just jobs) multiple times in their lifetime. This appears to fuel the argument that investing in expensive education or time-consuming certifications tied to a specific job is less relevant than just-in-time learning.

Further confounding this issue is the confusion around the differences between a certificate and a certification program. (See the 2010 ICE document “Defining Features of Quality Certification and Assessment Based Certificate Programs” for further clarification.) The confusion is evident in the minds of the consumer, employers and even some certification professionals. I recently attended a conference where a vice president of learning gave a presentation on how her organization “innovated” its certification program by eliminating eligibility requirements and changing the assessment. This essentially made the program an assessment-based certificate program. There is absolutely nothing wrong with such a change, especially when thoughtfully considered with stakeholder input and with a strategic thrust fueling it. But, in this case, this individual did not seem to recognize the impact of the change and continued to call the program a certification.

ICE recognizes the need for better communication tools and more thoughtful messaging around the differences between a certificate and a certification. In 2015, ICE released a video titled Certification: What Is It and Why Is It Important? With over 2,000 views on YouTube, this video explains the role for certification in a way that should resonate with a lay audience. But the communication challenge still exists. Perhaps it is not as simple as articulating the purpose and value of certification and differences between certification and certificate programs as two distinct solutions.

ICE has put together a task force to address what tools ICE needs to develop to better explain the certification story. And the ICE Board of Directors is discussing this issue as a strategic component of ICE’s future.

But I have questions for you. Does this confusion stem from inadequate communication, or is it a strategic question involving business models and the future of certification structures? Please fill out this survey (featuring the questions below) or drop me an email at We will share the results in future member communication.

  1. Do you see this issue as one of terminology and communication or one of innovation?
  2. Do you feel an urgency to innovate in order to maintain relevance? If so, how are you accomplishing that?
  3. Is the public (consumers, employers and potential certificant holders) able to determine the value of your certification? If so, how?
  4. What do you see as the future of the certification model?

My passion for the credentialing field and promoting the value of certification and certificate programs will not waiver. But I appreciate your input in accurately assessing the issues.

As always, it is a pleasure serving the credentialing community.


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