Among IT professionals, few topics spark as much debate as certification. Does certification still have value? Which certifications are most valuable? Which ones are most difficult to attain? Like them or not, certifications play a key role in the IT profession, and, unfortunately, IT management typically has a poor understanding of them. So what value does certification provide IT pros and the organizations that hire them?

At its core, psychometrically validated certification exams provide an indication of an individual's future job success by evaluating knowledge and skills related to the tasks the person would be expected to perform within a particular IT area. In other words, certifications are objective measures of baseline knowledge and skills as long as they're aligned with job role. To make certification work for your business, create a map for the role of certification within your business unit. Your map should include three areas: hiring, training, and organizational readiness and assurance.

Hiring
The value of certification for individuals lies in its strength as an objective measure of a person's knowledge and skills—both for potential employers as a statement of minimum competence and for current employers as a measure of employee development. Certification isn't an end in itself—it's a measure of competence and progress in an individual's qualifications and career. Unfortunately, hiring is one of the areas in which certifications are most misused. Often, job listings call for certifications that aren't relevant to the tasks that the position requires.

The key to the successful business use of certifications is to map them to job roles within your organization, then work with your human resources (HR) department to ensure that your recruiters understand which certifications are important for which roles. This knowledge will help determine base qualifications for many positions. The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) created the Tech Career Compass (TCC), an excellent resource for obtaining information about certification. To use the free TCC tool, visit http://tcc.comptia.org.

The fact that a candidate is certified isn't, by itself, justification for hiring the person—it's simply an objective assessment. Years ago, I worked with an extraordinarily talented senior IT consultant who was fond of saying, "I've never been hired for a Novell job because I'm a CNE, and I've never lost a Microsoft job because I'm not an MCSE." He was right. Companies that contracted his services did so on the basis of his experience, skills, and knowledge, all of which were formidable. Certification shows a high potential for future job success within the subject area of the exam, but there's no substitute for experience.

The bottom line: Certifications provide good, albeit not perfect, indicators for future job success. When aligned with other criteria and interview performance, certification can help you reduce risks related to hiring. Reducing hiring risks will reduce company expenses in the long run.

Training
Few organizations dispute that training is a key component in maintaining relevant job skills, but training is expensive—because of both the actual cost of training and the loss of productivity while an employee is in class. If an employee sees training simply as a break from work, the result is an undocumented financial drain, not to mention the lost opportunity of sending a different, more dedicated employee to training. Certification exams are a short-term way to measure the training return on investment (ROI).

Be sure that the training and certification exams that employees take map to the technology that they work with or will soon work with. Training and certification that doesn't map to the employee's job tasks will simply prepare the employee for a job with a different company. For example, although a Help desk worker might be personally interested in an entry-level networking certification, such as Cisco System's Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification, based on the routine desktop support the employee performs, a Windows XP or basic hardware exam might be more appropriate.

The bottom line: Certification can provide a short-term indicator of successful training and hence positive ROI. As a manager, if you start using certification as a metric, make sure you dedicate resources and time to employee certification training. Failing to provide adequate training might encourage cheating, which will defeat the purpose of both the training and the certification.

Organizational Readiness and Assurance
Certification provides a way for front-line managers to measure employee baseline technical competency. You can use certification as a measurable goal when building technical capacity and excellence, both of which are indicators of organizational readiness. For example, during the deployment of a new or updated technology, managers can use certification as evidence to assure upper-level management that their support teams are prepared to support the technology investment from the time of deployment.

Certification can provide real business value to a company's customers and business partners if the company markets it appropriately. Assertions such as "All our IT staff are certified in their areas of expertise," accompanied by supporting documentation can be a powerful tool in closing a sale. Line-of-business (LOB) owners can use certification to assure business continuity by requiring certified staff in service level agreements (SLA) and in IT project Request for Proposals (RFPs). Businesses can also use certification as a component of risk management or evidence of due diligence for regulatory, legal, and good-faith matters, which are becoming increasingly important elements of the overall corporate risk profile.

The bottom line: The real value of certification for business lies in its ability to provide evidence of organizational readiness and assurance of base qualifications and competency. Certification reduces the risk of IT mistakes stemming from a lack of knowledge and skills.

Certification is very relevant to today's IT manager as an objective, repeatable measure of base skills with a given technology. To make certification work for you and your company, you need to incorporate certification into your IT strategy. Hiring, training, and organizational readiness and assurance are three ways that you can accomplish this. The common thread in each of these areas is that by properly incorporating certification in your company's IT strategy, you can reduce risk within the business and make a powerful contribution to the company's bottom line.