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The term micro-credential is trending. The dramatic growth of interest in this topic has produced a wide range of definitions and descriptions. So far, no single version has achieved near-universal acceptance.
Other discussions we have seen seem uniformly sunny and superficial. They’re filled with options and benefits, but they don’t tell you what it takes to create micro-credentials or put them in context.
Our approach features concrete descriptions of credential development requirements and challenges. In summary form, of course.
Because Kryterion’s primary expertise is in credential development, management, and implementation, we know what it takes to build valid, useful micro-credentials. And we share those insights here.
That said, we do agree that micro-credentials have vast potential to help companies, organizations, career seekers and professionals achieve their respective goals in ways traditional credentials have not.
Let’s dive in.
Before we discuss and dissect micro-credentials, consider the term credential.
A credential formally recognizes that the recipient has met certain preestablished standards.
Put another way, a credential confirms that Person X satisfied a previously established standard, at a given point in time.
If Person Y has the same certificate, you can safely assume that Person Y went through the same process and met the same criteria.
Credentials are used for a multitude of purposes. The value and prestige associated with each of them varies accordingly.
In the world of professional and career development, a person who holds a traditional credential is understood to have demonstrated competence with a substantial and clearly defined set of skills or field of knowledge. The range and extent of those skills or knowledge will vary. In any case, conceptually, the challenge was significant.
Among traditional credentials earned in the course of a career, two stand out: assessment-based certificates and professional certifications.
Assessment-based certificates are earned after completion of a mandatory training curriculum. The assessment measures participants’ mastery of the training content. Those whose performance satisfies the established standard earn the certificate.
Professional certifications don’t require any specific training program. However, they do require achievement of the minimum required competence required to perform the associated professional responsibilities. The process for verifying professional competence must be legally defensible1 and psychometrically sound.
Psychometrics, in very simple terms, is the science that makes standardized testing possible and reliable. It applies statistical tools to test takers’ choices to achieve precise and useful insights into their ability.
Some professional credentials empower “certificants2” to make decisions that meaningfully impact people’s lives. Once earned, the distinction they confer is date limited. Periodic recertification is required to ensure continuing competence. Their validity is sometimes further affirmed by a third-party accreditation body such as the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.
Traditional credentials are a milestone achievement for those that earn them.
Credentialing programs are also a milestone for those who create them and for much the same reasons. The development of a traditional certificate typically requires prolonged and dedicated effort by many different experts. More about this, below.
Unlike traditional credentials, a micro-credential is narrowly focused. A micro-credential recognizes mastery of a specific, but very limited set of competencies. That’s why the skill sets addressed by micro-credentials are commonly referred to as “bite-sized,” “snackable,” or “just-in-time.” They may or may not require a training component.
Please take note. The primary difference between a traditional credential and a micro-credential has nothing to do with the quality of the evaluation.
Whether mastery of a specific area of expertise or skill set is confirmed by a traditional credential or a micro-credential, the minimum required proficiency should be consistent.
The major difference between these credential families is in the breadth of skills or knowledge evaluated and the specificity of the reported results.
Depending on the industry or profession, a traditional credential may take many months or weeks to achieve. A micro-credential, on the other hand, is usually much less demanding to prepare for and earn. Which neatly brings us to our next point.
Micro-credentials demonstrate that when size matters, bigger is not always better. This is certainly true in the world of professional training and development. Consider the multiple circumstances – listed below – in which bite-sized micro-credentials offer a clear advantage over laboriously achieved credentials.
The immediate return on effort delivered by micro-credentials can be very attractive. Why spend months or years working to acquire a degree or credential if the proof of proficiency that is needed is for a small portion of those larger bodies of knowledge?
In some cases, a single micro-credential may be sufficient. Other situations might require a cluster of them. Either way, micro-credentials can be the fastest and most efficient path to verifying mastery of targeted skills.
For example, in various industries the path to a promotion or raise often depends on the acquisition of a particular set of new skills. When those skills can be confirmed with one or more micro-credentials instead of a strenuous, all-inclusive credential program… well, the advantage goes to the former.
What about entry-level career seekers or those looking to change careers, unsure whether a particular path or program is for them? The initial decision to explore the unknown is easier when the investment is for a bite-sized micro-credential rather than the whole (credential) enchilada. Call it the “taste-test” strategy.
If it happens that earning a series of (“stackable”) micro-credentials can lead to or result in a full-scope (traditional) credential, so much the better.
The logic isn’t complicated. Micro-credentials are small in scope. They are generally simpler to prepare for. So, their feedback loop is short and swift compared to traditional credentials or degrees.
Although they recognize more modest accomplishments, the recognition arrives more rapidly.
Perhaps this analogy will help. Earning a micro-credential is akin to earning a passing grade on one test in a course of study. Earning a traditional credential, on the other hand, is like getting a passing grade for the whole course.
If recognition increases motivation, then getting that feedback more rapidly should drive motivation.
Consider a scenario in which a training program consists of multiple micro-credentials. Earning the first micro-credential delivers a sense of accomplishment. I can do this! A positive outcome matched to a relatively rapid return on effort boosts program participants’ willingness to earn the next one.
And if the outcome isn’t positive, what then? A micro-credential’s narrow focus is beneficial here, too. If a deficiency is detected, it will also be narrow, and thus more readily identified and corrected. Handled properly, micro-credentials deliver constructive feedback that can quickly become the springboard to subsequent success.
Also, to the extent that micro-credentials make it simpler to demonstrate achievements and accumulate skills, the path to career growth and personal success becomes more inviting.
Digital badges3 that attest to micro-credential success also enhance their motivational impact.
Digital badges are, simultaneously,
Why is that? First, because they’re easily shared on social media and via online profiles. And second, because their validity is easily verified via the metadata embedded in them.
3. We refer here to digital badges that adhere to the prevailing Open Badges specification.
Those that have them, share them, creating awareness. Digital badges can help open doors to new career opportunities, particularly in technology-based sectors. Plus, they attract attention, creating even more demand. Result: those that don’t have them, want them!
This creates a dynamic growth cycle. Early adapters, who see their competitive advantage shrinking as late comers catch up, are motivated to acquire additional skills–if they haven’t already.
Micro-credentials can be used to confirm skills and competencies acquired in the “school of life” (i.e., outside of academic or other sorts of formal training). This is particularly true when the objective is to verify abilities of smaller scope than traditional credentials generally attempt to validate.
After all, a substantial portion of many individuals’ skillsets is acquired on the job or on their own. Such skills may be important aspects of their current jobs or reflect career interests and aspirations.
For example, micro-credentials may be used to validate self-taught technical skills of interest to potential employers, such as SaaS product use or implementation.
In business sectors worldwide, the competition for skilled workers and professionals – sometimes called a “war for talent” – is often intense. Increasingly, proof of proficiency and ambition, in the form of micro-credentials (or the digital badges that represent them), matters more to HR departments than the applicant’s educational pedigree.
According to Janet Van Huysse, senior vice president and chief people officer at Cloudflare, cited in a December 2021 article in SHRM , “HR leaders now understand that technical skills are a business imperative that require companies to double down on training and upskilling programs across the entire organization.”
Result: many employers are and have been generating their own training solutions. Some of those programs are created in-house for internal staff and partner companies’ teams. Others are produced in conjunction with existing educational institutions to respond to business requirements.
The point is, it can be faster and easier to create and complete credentialing programs designed around micro-credentials than traditional credentials. When limited program scope and rapid turn-around requirements are in alignment, micro-credentials can be a credible solution.
Dr. Leslie Thomas, Kryterion’s Chief Strategy and Product Officer and a psychometrician with over 20 years of industry experience, explains that the format of micro-credentials makes them relatively easy to customize.
Ambitious learners can design individual learning paths by earning the micro-credentials that interest them, in credentialing programs that support this. The results of this process, for some, are captured in skill portfolios that map participants’ growth, interests, and abilities.
Individuals’ ability to tailor demonstrated proficiencies to the job market in this way makes them more attractive to employers. It also makes it easier for HR departments to identify them.
But other approaches are also in use. Dr. Thomas has identified five distinct micro-credential “personalization” scenarios used by credentialing programs to achieve their goals.
Why have micro-credentials become so popular all of the sudden? What makes them so valuable?
From a business and industry standpoint, micro-credentials validate individual skill sets with level of specificity that degrees and traditional credentials don’t replicate. Meanwhile, major employers such as IBM, Apple and Google, are publicly pivoting away from hiring based on degrees and resumes to hiring based on skill sets and skill portfolios. Where they lead, others will surely follow.
Career seekers and professionals in search of opportunities are anxious to deliver what potential employers are looking for. The relative ease with which micro-credentials can satisfy the mutual interests of both sides certainly contributes to their booming popularity.
Here are 3 reasons why it matters:
According to the McKenzie Global Institute , up to 375 million workers worldwide (or 14% of the global workforce) may need to change occupations to stay employed by 2030. The main drivers of evolving workplace requirements are artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.
Other less predictable factors could play an important supporting role. The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent example. Climate change, some suggest, could also have a transformative impact on the workplace as we know it today.
For employers, their teams, and those who support them, the implication is clear. Organizations and teams that embrace flexibility are more likely to enjoy a strategic advantage when the next crisis (aka opportunity) rolls around.
The micro-credentialing approach is well-suited to this environment. Because it has the potential to deliver maximum responsiveness and validated expertise, there is every reason to believe that demand will continue to grow.
Micro-credentialing neatly circumvents the need for lengthy internships or extended and expensive degree programs. New workforce entrants can more readily substantiate their expertise via micro-credentials. This is as important to employers as it is to opportunity seekers.
Meanwhile, for current workforce participants in search of new horizons, micro-credentialing career growth supports superior work-life balance compared to traditional options.
The increasingly hectic pace of enterprise expansion and contraction–in which layoffs and hiring freezes alternate with talent wars–can make skill acquisition and retention a tremendous challenge.
According to some thought leaders, the logical solution for corporate leaders is to plumb the talent potential of the existing workforce. The pertinent options are termed upskilling – or training for enhanced job performance and reskilling – training to transition to a new role.
One of the key benefits associated with such internal skills development programs is enhanced retention4 .
Micro-credentialing is particularly well-suited to support upskilling and reskilling initiatives. As already implied, incremental learning has the effect of reducing the anxiety associated with new and unfamiliar challenges. A shorter feedback loop – speedier delivery of positive reinforcement – especially during the initial phases, is likely to enhance personal motivation.
The title of a recent article in the Harvard Business Review sums up the situation nicely: Skills-Based Hiring Is on the Rise.
Although the rate of change appears to vary dramatically, depending on the industry and employer, the overall shift is unmistakable. According to the HBR article, “Between 2017 and 2019, employers reduced degree requirements for 46% of middle-skill positions and 31% of high-skill positions.”
The talent pool now being discovered is comprised of what some label STARs, workers who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes. The terms “hidden workers” and new-collar workers have also been used. Their non-traditional training routes can include military service, on-the-job skill acquisition, boot camps, personal initiatives, etc.
Last year, LinkedIn rolled out a program designed to deliver a “skills-based approach to opportunity” called Skills Path. Listed among the corporate participants in the program were companies like Microsoft, GitHub, Citrix, TaskRabbit and Wayfair.
According to Forbes , Walmart, in conjunction with some 40 partners, recently launched an Open Skills Network “to accelerate a shift to skills-based educations and hiring.”
Micro-credentials, because they capture the most granular skills in the credentialing eco-system, are well-situated to become key elements in developing skills-focused retention and recruitment programs.
To this point, the focus of the discussion has been to explain the function and value of micro-credentials for employers and (aspiring) members of the workforce.
But how do micro-credentials look from the perspective of those tasked with creating them?
Earlier, we made the point that the difference between a traditional credential and micro-credential is not a matter of quality. Both should be reliable, rigorously evaluated and professionally validated (i.e., psychometrically sound).
But what does that mean? A little context will help clarify this.
Keep in mind that traditional credentials are carefully designed to deliver highly consistent measures of proficiency. Candidates with equivalent skills who complete different versions of the same assessment should achieve equivalent outcomes each time.
The process of creating traditional credentials is complex and rigorous. It generally involves the coordinated efforts of many experts, some with specialized qualifications. These can include program managers, training experts, subject matter experts, lawyers, item (i.e., test question) writers, and psychometricians.
In order for micro-credentials to match the reliability of traditional credentials, a similarly high level of expertise is required to build and validate them. In other words, skimping on expertise and rigor is not an option.
On the other hand, compared to traditional credentials, individual micro-credentials can take less time to generate. Obviously, this looks like an advantage, and it may be one.
However, for credentialing programs that build sets of stackable (i.e., sequentially delivered) micro-credentials, the time saved creating each one may be offset by the time required to build and manage each set. Increasing the number of micro-credential options and stacks simultaneously increases delivery, maintenance, and management responsibilities.
Micro-credentials may present new challenges, depending on the certification program and market expectations. Programs planning to introduce micro-credentials to a new audience or for the first time to an established audience should carefully map the roll-out process in advance. Significant time and resources may be required to educate the intended target market on the benefits and differences between the new micro-credential(s) and traditional credentials.
Dr. Thomas, Kryterion’s Chief Strategy and Product Officer, points out that successful credentialing programs are built on substantial market research. Understanding market pain points, she says, and responding to them, is just as critical for micro-credentials as for traditional certification programs.
So, while individual micro-credential generation may be less time-consuming than traditional, broad-scope credentials, the extent of that advantage will depend on a host of other factors.
Micro-credentials represent a dramatic departure from traditional, broad-scope credentials, as described above. In trained hands, they can be creative and flexible tools with all the professional rigor for which their traditional counterparts are noted.
They can also be integrated into existing credentialing ecosystems–as supplemental resources or alternative solutions–relatively easily.
Micro-credentials are uniquely well-suited to rapid verification of focused skill development. Employers and employees both benefit. Credential programs have been shown to increase retention, improve workforce satisfaction, and enhance the customer experience.
To be clear, micro-credentials are not a panacea. They’re an alternative. For existing credentialing programs, they’re an additional option. For new programs, they’re an opportunity to implement innovative solutions on an incremental basis while limiting risk.
Ready to learn more about micro-credentials and how they can be implemented in your new or growing program? Contact us. Kryterion would be happy to help you explore your credentialing options!
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