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Why certification by STC won’t work
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By Geoff Hart
Previously published as: Hart, G. 2008. Why certification by STC won't work. Intercom July/August 2008:11, 13.
[A look back, post-publication: It's important to emphasize that when I was asked to write this article, I was asked to focus on the drawbacks and problems that need to be solved first, not to present a balanced perspective. As a result, this argument is clearly one-sided. Although I certainly believe each of the issues I raise here is serious, I also believe it can be solved if STC is willing to invest the effort to do so. To learn more about the opposite side of the argument, see Nad Rosenberg's article "Certification: why we need to begin" in the same issue of Intercom. You can also read the article on Nad's site.]
Certification has many virtues, but also many drawbacks. Here, my role is to focus on the drawbacks.
The biggest issue confronting any certification effort is whether or not employers will pay more for a certified communicator. If not, the effort of earning certification won’t prove particularly useful to STC members.
The experience of other professions, and current trends in our own, gives little cause for confidence. Professional certification is a legal requirement for doctors and engineers, and in those professions, certification offers clear value: without certification, you can't work in those professions. But technical communication has no such legal standing. In fields such as translation, certification has made many employers aware of and willing to pay for certified translators. In contrast, the BELS editorial certification (www.bels.org) is well respected by editors but largely unknown to clients. If no one but STC members recognizes the value of certification, certification won’t get us anywhere. Given our lack of success demonstrating our value to employers, and the pernicious perception that writing and editing are commodities that can be outsourced to the lowest-cost contractor, certification places the cart before the horse: employers must recognize our value before certification becomes a meaningful way to confirm that value.
I also find myself wondering whether certification really guarantees quality or only demonstrates the ability to pass a test. In highly regulated professions such as medicine and engineering, certification creates a high standard that all practitioners must meet. Medical malpractice and collapsing bridges prove that no certification process is perfect, but these problems would be far more frequent and serious in the absence of certification. A comparable stringency cannot be achieved for technical communication. Supported by legal constraints, doctors and engineers have considerable control over the conditions under which they work, and can refuse to perform or approve work they deem to be below their professional standards. Technical communicators lack any such protection. Under the tight deadlines and lack of empowerment that face most technical communicators, only rarely will we have the power to delay a product’s ship date or the delivery of documentation simply because it doesn’t live up to our professional standards.
For certification to have value, it must be based on objective standards that subject all professionals to the same criteria, and that guide all evaluators to reach the same judgment of a professional's work. But the nature of our work is highly subjective, and there are no universally accepted "best practices". Often, a technical communicator can choose from several solutions to a communication problem, and determining which one is "best" is a matter of opinion; in many cases, all solutions are "good enough". Certification boards also face a thorny problem not faced by many other certifications: without intimate knowledge of the audience for a communication product, the evaluators have no way of knowing whether the communicator chose an appropriate approach. I faced this problem several years ago during the STC publications competition when the standardized evaluation guidelines didn't relate to the goal and context of my publication; in fact, I received an award only after demonstrating how several of the evaluation criteria were irrelevant in the case of my publication, which had to solve a different set of problems.
"Politics", personal agendas, and personality conflicts can also pose problems. Colleagues who are professional translators tell me of serious subjectivity and of political interference in the certification process. If you’ve ever argued with a colleague about the best wording, you recognize the subjectivity of our work. If you've ever carried a grudge against someone whose opinion you dislike, yet who has the power to judge you, you understand the biases this can create. Developing an objective testing process is a uniquely thorny problem, and it’s not at all clear how we can develop criteria that ensure a level playing field and the same high standards for all candidates.
Some have proposed a single certification based on a single large body of knowledge. Yet our profession’s diversity argues strongly against this: the knowledge and skills of writers, instructional designers, editors, and translators certainly overlap, but the differences are so great that no single certification will satisfy specialists in each discipline. This is why, for example, BELS has its own rigorous certification process. Would any BELS-certified editor respect a less-rigorous form of certification in which a handful of editing questions were rolled into a more comprehensive test of dozens of skills editors don't use? It seems unlikely we can afford to develop separate certifications for each of STC’s twenty-plus communities of interest (formerly known as SIGs). Where certification such as that offered by BELS already exists, STC certification also appears to be reinventing the wheel.
Grandfathering is another obstacle. Experienced professionals will undoubtedly insist that portfolios and achievement records are sufficient proof of their skill, and will be reluctant to purchase additional certification. But grandfathering based solely on years of experience will dilute the program's value unless we can rigorously evaluate each candidate’s portfolio—a subjective, time-consuming, expensive task. If our most experienced members won’t pay to certify, and only newcomers will, what does this say to employers about the value of certification? For certification to be meaningful, it must also be an ongoing practice. People who put their life on hold to pass a single test and coast thereafter undermine the certification’s value—yet requiring periodic retesting to renew a certification is unlikely to find favor with experienced members still producing work of the highest quality.
The virtues of certification cannot be ignored, but they are outweighed by the drawbacks: There’s no evidence that employers will value certification; it can be highly subjective; and it requires ongoing renewal, even for experienced practitioners, to avoid diluting its value. The more important task must be to demonstrate our value to employers. Only once they understand our value will certification provide a means to assure employers that they can expect to receive that value.
Some might consider Geoff to be "certifiable", but he's earned a good living as a scientific editor, technical communicator, and translator for more than 20 years—based solely on demonstrating his value to clients rather than certification.
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