Computing Applications Technical opinion

Who Values Technology Certification?

When it comes to gauging the value of IT certification for assessing the competency of job candidates, it really all depends on who's doing the hiring.
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Throughout the 1990s, many firms engaged in widespread internal IT dissemination in an effort to leverage the capabilities of innovations into greater organizational efficiencies. Today, IT use is an integral part of the ordinary course of business and provides technologically progressive firms with unprecedented opportunities. Although IT business applications present firms with vast possibilities, many complexities accompany the organizational usage of these technologies. Here, I report and analyze the results of a recently completed study examining the critical intersection of IT and human resource (HR) management. The research here specifically addresses the question: Do HR and IT professionals perceive IT certification differently and, if so, why? The question is of practical relevance when examined, as in this study, within the context of the candidate selection process for a firm evaluating potential hires for an IT-related position.

In the business arena, one of the most widely utilized IT innovations is the information systems network (ISN) [3] comprised of global, wide, and local area networks. ISNs are vital components of the interconnected centerpiece of the worldwide digital business communications infrastructure and provide organizations with unparalleled efficiencies to share data and physical IT resources [5]. In order to leverage the advantages of ISN connectivity, businesses continue to network at an unprecedented rate [2]. However, many organizations struggle with the task of managing mission-critical ISN resources [6]. One common challenge faced by all organizations attempting to leverage the capabilities of an ISN is to identify a competent professional to manage the technology resource. During the candidate selection process, many firms place considerable importance on professional certifications [7]. Traditionally, an ISN professional who holds a certification can garner significantly more compensation than a noncertified counterpart [4, 7]. The underlying assumption of employers regarding ISN certification is a certified candidate is better able to facilitate the management of organizational ISN resources. However, previous research indicates that certification is not a positive predictor of one’s ability to manage organizational ISN resources [1]. In this contradiction between practice and theory exists the question addressed here.

The study surveyed two groups of individuals traditionally involved in the candidate selection process regarding IT-related positions—HR and IT professionals. Working from a list of the 2002 Fortune 1000 largest companies, 478 matched pairs of IT and HR professionals received an email request to participate in a brief Web-based survey regarding ISN certification; it produced 92-paired responses (19.25%) representing almost every aspect of the global marketplace. The data collected provided a basis from which to draw a definitive conclusion regarding the perception of IT certification between each respective group and ultimately found there is a significant difference in the perceived value of ISN certification between IT and HR professionals.

Based on the analysis of the data, HR professionals do in fact place greater value upon ISN certification in the candidate selection process than do IT professionals. As a means of qualifying the results, each individual completing the survey received an email invitation to participate in a subsequent online chat session to discuss the results. Eleven HR professionals participated in the first session, where each indicated favoring an ISN administrator candidate with a certifying credential principally as a means to quantify ability. When prompted as to why they favored an ISN administrator with an external certification, two themes of justification surfaced among the participating HR professionals. First, and despite previously published research to the contrary, the majority of the group believed a certified ISN administrator would, on average, possess a higher degree of competency than a noncertified one [1]. Additionally, the entire group asserted that by hiring a certified ISN administrator, they minimized their respective personal responsibility for assessing the technical competency of the candidate. Specifically, several participants stated the technical assessment of the skill of an ISN administrator candidate was beyond the scope of their respective ability and therefore felt it a suitable course of action to rely upon a certification as a means of attesting to the skill of a potential hire. Conversely, of the 27 IT professionals participating in the second online chat session, only four expressed a belief that ISN certification correlated to ability. None of the IT professionals in the online chat indicated a certification was a mechanism suitable for justifying a hire.

Although the research discussed here indicates a disparity between the perceived value of ISN certification among the subject groups, the limitations of the current research must be acknowledged. First, the study generalizes ISN certification into a single cohesive unit. While this affords greater ease of measurement, the results may differ depending on the specific type of ISN certifications examined (Microsoft, Novell, or A+). Finally, the survey instrument included only eight consideration criteria; there may be additional criteria that individual IT and HR professionals consider in the candidate selection process that was not represented in the survey. The absence of any additional consideration criteria may affect the results obtained. Within these areas exists the opportunity for additional research to either support the current findings or present a counterpoint.

From a specific practical perspective, the traditional industry practice of quantifying skill based upon credentialing seems to fail with respect to ISN professionals [1]. HR professionals, with the support of IT professionals, may need to develop a more reflective method to assess a candidate’s skill level beyond certification. For example, a firm in need of an ISN administrator may request both HR and IT to develop a profile of a desired candidate and detail an interactive technical and personal measurement methodology for candidate assessment. Through this process, the organization might identify a "best-fit" candidate with respect to the specifics of the firm’s IT infrastructure as well as organizational culture as opposed to merely an externally credentialed candidate who appears qualified on paper.

Given the parameters of the discussion presented here, the conclusion of this study remains: HR professionals, to a greater degree that IT professionals, value external certifications in the candidate selection process when hiring for IT-related positions. Additionally, evidence indicates the perceived value of a certification among HR professionals lies in their ability to rely on the certification as a means of justifying a hiring decision. Previous research indicates that reliance upon certification as a surrogate means to assess a candidate’s ability may be appropriate for non-IT-related positions. However, certification is not a robust predictor of ability with regard to specific IT skills [1]. Nevertheless, many firms continue to place great emphasis on external credentialing during the candidate selection process for IT positions. From the evidence presented in this study, there exists opportunity for improvement in the organizational hiring practices for IT-related positions.

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    1. Cegielski, C., Rebman, C., and Reithel, B. The value of certification: An emperical assessment of the perceptions of end-users of local area networks. Information Systems J. 13, 1 (Jan. 2003), 97–108.

    2. O'Keefe, S. and Masud, S. Who has the winning strategy? Telecommunications. 33, 4 (1999), 18–23.

    3. Passmore, D. Ethernet: Not just for LANs anymore. Business Communications Review 30, 7 (2000), 18–20.

    4. Prencipe, L. Network Administrators. Inforworld 22, 34 (2000), 77.

    5. Stallings, W. Local and Metropolitan Area Networks, 6th Edition. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2000.

    6. Watson, S. The best jobs. Computerworld 34, 14 (2000), 46–48.

    7. Williamson, M. Paying through the nose. Computerworld 31, 46 (1997), 89–92.

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