Thursday, March 17, 2011

Certificates and Certification: Recognition that is fit for purpose

The other day I saw an interesting promo in my daily perusals.  The chair of a large Certification Board was trying to point out that the certificates are handed out by their board were  a form of recognition of achievement, having participated or completed a course.. In their context certification was a form of recognition of “mastery of a body of knowledge”.  Yes, that makes sense, but to get there it seemed necessary for him to take a shot at organizations that provide certificates based solely on participation.  The message was clear, they would never provide a certificate only for participation.

The discussion struck me on a variety of levels, in part, because it is the area in which I live all the time.  In our proficiency testing program we provide a Certificate of Participation so that the laboratories can indicate to their respective health authority or accreditation body that they are participating in proficiency testing.  The certificate does not guarantee that the laboratory is proficient, but does indicate that they are engaged in external quality assessment.  In our Certificate Course for Laboratory Quality Management we provide another kind of certificate, but in this case a Certificate of Achievement which is based on participation in discussion, completion of assignments, successful grades on quizzes, and a final examination.  We know by the end of the course that folks are engaged, interested and knowledgeable.    With CMPT being certified each year to ISO9001:2008 by assessment we are thoroughly visited and inspected and demonstrate our compliance with the standard, not only on paper, but in action.We receive our Certificate of Assessment each year as one of conformance and achievement.

So I understand the complexities of the process inside and out.  What got me going was the message that certification was not only different from receiving a certificate of participation, but rather, that it was better and proof of a higher level of quality.  And that is an attitude that I have heard all too often.  It is disappointing that it is a message received from inside an organization that promotes itself as  committed to Quality.  

The point that got missed along the way is that we have a variety of ways to provide acknowledgement or recognition.  We can provide Certificates for participation, Certification by exam. Certification by assessment. and finally, Accreditation by assessment. It is not that one is higher and the others lower, or that one is superior and the other inferior.  Recognition has a variety of tools and all are different and all need to be  fit for purpose.  

Somewhere along the way folks have developed a notion of assessment that is more about competing interests than being about acknowledging achievement and recognition.  I understand that the chair of a certification board perceives that what they do is important.  I got that and I agree that it is.  But is his certification meeting client needs or is it designed to fit the needs of the certification board?  
There are lots of people or organizations, for example,  whose need is to be able to demonstrate that they attended a meeting or participated in a program.  That is the sole point of the exercise.  For them a piece of paper with a gilded frame and a title Certificate of Participation is exactly what they need and want.  We at CMPT have been asked in the past if we would consider creating two certificates, one for participation and another for excellence if the laboratory got all its challenges correct.  But  upping the ante to a Certificate of Excellence would not only exceed the need, but may damage the value.  In proficiency testing for example, it is pretty clear that the more expectations that are put on the line, the more likely organizations participate in “gaming” or deception or special procedures to increase the likelihood of a correct  answer.  So the process become less about improving quality and more about getting a good grade.   Its like being in Grade 4 all over again.  

For years I have listened to accrediting bodies drone on about how accreditation provides a  higher level of assurance of quality because accreditation bodies address competency while certification does not.  There is a term for this; bunk.  I have seen and experienced the work of really good accreditation bodies and also seen the effects of really bad ones.  Recently, for example, a colleague told me of a laboratory he visited that was very proud of its 15189 accreditation.  What they had was a room off an office with a shelf with their quality manual, and procedure books.  Not much evidence for quality there.

Now I am a pretty competitive type guy, and I am pretty comfortable with the concept of excellence and recognizing achievement.  Let’s just make sure that the process that we develop is actually about meeting the needs of the client.


  1. When you write "The certificate does not guarantee that the laboratory is proficient, but does indicate that they are engaged in external quality assessment" I'd have to disagree with you.
    It indicates that they have signed up to a scheme, nothing more. Do they actually do the EQA, or have they signed up to it. Over here in the UK I'm part of an EQA scheme which is OK, but the admin is a tad disorganized. I occasionally get the results of other lab's EQA rather than my own. These returns show the last eight sets of results. Mine always have all eight done. Many of the other labs do the EQA ever other week, or every third week, but still can claim they are part of the scheme.

  2. I don't disagree. There can be a difference between paying your money and signing up on the one side and being engaged on the other. It goes to purpose and motivation.

    In a mandated system where an oversight body (accreditation body or license bureau) is watching performance signing up and not participating is a risk.

    Even in a voluntary system, paying money just to get a participation certificate is pretty sketchy, but again in the voluntary system, the decision of how many samples to order and how many to test is strictly internal. From my perspective, the more often and more varied the PT challenge, the greater the Quality Assessment value and the ability to detect system error, but at a certain point even that becomes saturated.


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