Certification: What took so long?

When I announced the start of the STC certification program at the Summit in Dallas last month, I used images of a marathon on my slides, in part because the Boston Marathon was held only a couple of weeks before, but also because of the long path we followed. Believe it or not, certification was first discussed at the STC Annual Conference in San Diego in 1964! The first Ad Hoc Committee on Certification was established in 1975. Since then we’ve had four membership surveys, two RFPs, and one previous business plan (1984) that was tabled by the Board. More recently, an active Certification Task Force, chaired by Jon Baker, worked for several more years before we broke through. So, what took so long? With the dust settling, I’m getting a clearer picture.

When the issue first came up in 1964, except for the medical field, professional certification was uncommon. Certification was a bold, cutting-edge idea, and there was no path to follow. The first decade STC spent wandering.

When the issue resurfaced in 1975, informal (non-valid) surveys indicated that the majority of members favored certification, but there was resistance from senior members, in particular Associate Fellows and Fellows, 74% of whom were opposed. In retrospect, this was understandable. Senior members, and in particular Associate Fellows and Fellows, had already made their careers, and won their honors, without certification. They not only didn’t see the value for themselves but saw certification as a personal threat. So naturally they were opposed. But reading between the lines of the historical record, STC boards (which have always been composed of senior members) were opposed to certification for many years.

Demand from the membership as a whole, however, persisted, and the issue did not go away. In 1984 the Ad Hoc Committee on Certification brough a business case to the Board. The plan was to certify STC members only. STC would have used ETS (which does the SATs and responded to an RFP) as the testing agency. The fee was $60, split between STC and ETS. It was a one-time event (a permanent certification). The program would have broken even at 1000 applicants. This would seem to have been certification’s moment. At the same time the Project Management Institute was considering certification for its members. PMI’s board approved certification, and today project management is a firmly established, respected profession, and PMI gets $30 million a year from certification. How different STC would look today if its board had reached a different decision!

So what happened to the 1984 plan? The Board decided that the majority of STC members had to approve it. (This predated Hedtke’s Law, which recent boards have used to good effect, which states, “If it doesn’t offend somebody, it couldn’t possibly interest anybody.”) The 1984 membership survey included four questions at the end about certification. 2900 of the 7200 members responded to the survey. A strong majority said they thought certification was a good idea, and the majority said either that they would pay for it out of pocket or their employers would. But someone—it’s not clear who—decided to treat the survey as an order form, not a statistical sampling: anyone who didn’t return the survey didn’t want to be certified. Of the respondents, 863 STC members wanted and had the means to get certified, but, well, 863 is less than 1000. The plan was put on hold for two years, which, in the end, turned out to be 25.

Board opposition softened in recent years. The boards I was on were influenced by the proliferation of certification programs all around us. (Mike Hughes, for one, is himself certified, by the International Society for Performance Improvement.) We also benefitted from hiring senior staff with association-management experience. From them we learned how overly dependent STC was on dues for our revenues; a typical association of our size draws revenue from dues, an annual conference, publications… and certification. Obviously we don’t want sky-high dues, and the whole time I was on the Board we searched for non-dues revenue sources, and certification was an obvious choice. But it wasn’t just about the money. We also learned from our staff that certification is a prime reason for associations of the future to exist.

When the Certification Task Force got back to the point of writing a business plan, we looked at the market differently. We saw it not just as STC members but as all practitioners, which immediately multiplied its size tenfold (more, unfortunately, given our current membership numbers). We saw both the need for and the potential revenue from recertification. We also linked certification with training. And today the going rate for a high-tech certification is ten times higher than it was 25 years ago. True, costs are higher as well, but the net effect was to tack a zero onto the price, sell into a market ten times as large, and triple the revenue stream (certification, recertification, and training). Our business plan, though very conservative, still broke even at under 700 applicants. To our numbers, this board said yes.

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I am a lifelong technical communicator, an Associate Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, and former chairman of the STC Certification Commission. I earned a BA in Physics and Astronomy, and an MS in Science Communication, from Boston University. I am married with three children and we live in my childhood home town of Westford, Massachusetts. Outside of my professional work I'm interested in vocal performance, music in general, reading, writing, astronomy, and Boston sports.

One thought on “Certification: What took so long?”

  1. Excellent points, eevbyrody. These are the same questions I’m asking, and I really hope that the Society can overcome both the immediate funding issue and the secondary, but not-so-unrelated problem of providing value that people are willing to pay for.Do you realize that the last time STC dues went up, our chapter’s membership dropped by 50% in a single year? So, by raising dues, the STC actually LOST money from our chapter. I don’t know how the membership will respond if the dues are increased further, or if STC were to levy a fee on members for the current year. And Bill S has a good point As VP of my chapter I know who all the current members are, and who the non-renewals are from previous years. If the Society implodes, I still have the information, and we can still provide support to each other (though not as a tax-exempt org, which we are in the USA).

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