Digital credential management — determining and certifying credit for the learning you have completed or embarked on — has emerged as a fast-growing specialization within talent management. This article looks at that specialization through an interview with Jonathan Finkelstein, CEO of Credly, a major player in the business. Credly and its competitors make money from selling their services to organizations. However, Finkelstein was willing to speak about his company’s contribution to people’s careers. He had much to say.
Michael Arthur: Can you tell me, from Credly’s standpoint, what digital credentials do for the individual?
Everything that Credly does revolves around the individual. Our vision is a world in which every person has the ability to achieve their full potential on the basis of what they actually know and can do. And the way we set out to achieve that vision for the world is by working with organizations. We want those organizations to make the best possible human capital decisions with trusted information about people’s skills. So, when we think about every decision, every opportunity to form partnerships, every time we work with an organization, it really is about “What’s in it for the individual?”
Arthur: So how do you answer that question?
Finkelstein: It generally comes down to “How do we help somebody achieve a positive career outcome?” For some people, that’s new and better opportunities with their current employer. For some, it’s the ability to make a career entrance or a career change. And for others, it’s finding the right next learning opportunity at the right time, that helps bring about a better opportunity at their current workplace, or a new opportunity somewhere else.
Arthur: So does an individual typically join as an employee of an organization you’re serving, or can individuals sign on with Credly directly?
Finkelstein: Credly has built a network of thousands of organizations that are in a position to assess and attest to the skills of each person that they interact with. The vast majority of credentials today are issued by organizations to people that those organizations do not employ. We are talking about groups like the Project Management Institute’s PMP certification, or Amazon Web Services’ certification of people in cloud technologies, or accountants whose specialized skills are verified by their professional associations such as the AICPA. These are organizations that set the standard for skills within a given field.
Arthur: What about a company’s own training efforts?
Finkelstein: There is a large and rapidly growing segment of businesses that are issuing certifications to their own employees. Employers today recognize that people are choosing a place to learn, not just a place to work. With as many as 95% of currently employed people today considering alternative jobs or careers, the onus is on the employer to make working there a great place to be. And learning ranks number one in what most people look for in a job. So, the best way to put your company’s money where its mouth is, is to issue a certification or credential of its own, summarizing the skills that a person develops.
Arthur: You say businesses are giving certificates to their own employees. Do you mean that the business is helping their employees get certificates from wherever they might go for training, or are you talking more specifically about in-company training?
Finkelstein: It’s both. Take IBM, where virtually every employee in their global workforce has earned digital credentials recognizing the skills that emerge from IBM’s own professional development program. IBM also works with a range of third parties that can attest to or assess the skills of their employees. In turn, as part of their learning culture, IBM has asked their partners to issue certificates using a common language about the skills involved.
Arthur: So, career owners receive training and earn credits from a wide range of providers. And Credly is looking across that wide range of providers and validating as far as possible how much work was involved in earning those credits. You help people put the pieces of their personal training jigsaw into an overall picture of their expertise. Is that right?
Finkelstein: That’s right. We know that every person today, whether employed or not, is an HR department of one. No matter how much internal training there is, each person is going to pursue a set of learning experiences that help them reach their own professional goals. However, this also means that companies today have a really difficult time finding a meaningful lens or set of filters for understanding what skills each person in their workforce has.
Arthur: And that begins with talent acquisition, right?
Finkelstein: Talent acquisition is super hard because we all speak a different language. Talent acquisition today focuses on largely self-reported inputs that people put into the top of the hiring funnel. What Credly is doing is creating a common language for both inside training providers and third-party providers. In turn, when it comes to making human capital decisions, there’s a common approach. There’s also a common platform for certificate earners to make their underlying skills portable, and to signal something about character-building too.
Arthur: Can an individual ask you to give credit for what they’ve already studied? Or do you only work with employers and let the benefits fall into place for their employees?
Finkelstein: Here’s the problem. Almost every job board today says what the job seeker is saying about themselves. It’s all self-reported data. As a result, people making hiring or promotion decisions have to lean on proxies like whether you have a degree, or unintentionally on whether they can pronounce your name, or by making assumptions based on your age, or gender, because everything is self-reported. There’s a lot of noise, no consistency, and that creates a lot of inequities and ultimately results in poor decision making.
So, our approach has been let’s only deal in verified outcomes. As a result, there must be a third party involved, saying whether you have those skills and providing the data to back it up. That said, we do give individuals on our platform the opportunity to bring other companies into the network. Many of the organizations that are on our network are there because an individual said, “Hey, I’ve got skills that this third party is able to attest to, they should be delivering their outcomes on your common platform.”
Arthur: You mentioned character-building for the individual. Would you like to say more about that?
Finkelstein: Take a well-known certification like a Microsoft Asia certification or the PMP certification. We know that people who earn those certifications have a growth mindset, otherwise they wouldn’t invest the time. The same logic applies to smaller learning investments. Someone can earn, say, a DocuSign certificate to help a company manage its legal documents and workflows, but you can imagine them working with technology more widely to free up people for more engaging work. Most hiring managers are eager to find passive talent, talent that hasn’t yet indicated that they’re looking for a job. Certificate earners provide a very fertile talent pool.
Arthur: Can you talk about the state of the art in skill development?
Finkelstein: To know how and where to invest in upskilling, companies need to have a strong understanding of what skills their people already possess. They used to ask people once a quarter, or once a year, “Hey, come in and update your own profile.” That leads to inconsistency and creates a big problem. We are increasingly hearing companies say “I not only want to have a common way of recognizing the learning that we provide, but I want to be able to see the skills people have learned outside, all in the same language.” That wider picture can mean more effective skill development for the people involved.
Arthur: There must be a lot of pressure on you to recognize new credentials, right?
Finkelstein: There’s a critical mass that continues to build on itself, across both the scope and depth of the organizations in our network. It’s driven, in part, from individuals expecting the organizations who train them to record learned skills in the individuals’ portable profiles. Today, Credly has 90-95% of the of the top-paying global IT, cyber security, and cloud operations certifications on our platform. We have an increasing number of allied health professional certifications — for ultrasound techs, oncology nurses, pharmacy technicians and so on. We have been providing the thought leadership to help people coalesce around why this is important for every individual in the labor market.
Arthur: You have suggested organizations are becoming the new universities, can you explain that?
Finkelstein: Today, 80% of millennials are saying that an opportunity for learning is the single most important quality they look for in deciding where to work. The typical worker seeks to be rewarded with both a paycheck and learning, but how will that learning be measured? The gold standard for companies is to put your brand behind it, to go on the record to say that the individual has actually picked up new skills. In that sense, a company is behaving like a university. Universities still play an important role for many people, at different life stages. However, organizations have an opportunity every single day to recognize the skills developed by somebody on the job, and to provide a trusted record of those skills.
For example, Philips Van Heusen (PHV) the company that owns Calvin Klein and a range of other retail brands, has created a credentialing program for its employees. People who work in retail or in the corporate environment behind retail operations are not known for having credentials that came from their workplace. Yet PHV are developing skills — for example as Virtual Ambassadors or PHV Ambassadors — that relate to rapid underlying changes in retail technology. So, it’s super important for individuals to have a portable credential from your employer that speaks to those skills.
Arthur: Do you have a final word?
Across virtually every aspect of business today, our culture and society are being transformed by technology. So, it should be no surprise that the resume and how people’s decisions get made are also being transformed. Today, there are lots of people with the required skills for new and better opportunities, who are not being considered. They are being summarily dismissed because we use arbitrary tools to reduce piles of resumes. And then you end up choosing between two or three people when you’ve dismissed many more that might have been a good fit. We are just beginning to see how all of this connects to creating a more diverse and inclusive workforce. One way to do better is to start with better, trusted information, about the skills people possess.
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