How We Keep Our SaaS Certification Program Fresh, Timely and Profitable

Joe Cannata
September 10, 2020

5 ways to ensure your certification program is amplifying your brand, delighting your customers, and delivering meaningful credentials

Five years ago, I joined Kinaxis to help the company launch its certification program. Our platform, RapidResponse, gives customers the ability to make fast, confident supply chain decisions, so they can plan better, live better, and change the world no matter how unpredictable it gets. Our skilled consultants and healthy partner ecosystem implement our solutions and services to customers all over the world. And the leadership of the company has always viewed our certification program as an essential component of our growth strategy. In fact, our consultants and partners gain their expertise through our certification program. This knowledge helps them get hired into the project, ultimately proving their knowledge and technical skills at all stages of deployments to make sure implementation goes smoothly.

Here are five ways we keep our SaaS certifications fresh, timely and paying off at Kinaxis.

1. Implement Remote Proctoring

Due to COVID-19, traditional testing centers that provide proctoring for our upper-level exams currently are either closed or running at reduced capacity. To keep up learning momentum, we decided to add remote proctoring by contracting with the same vendor that handles our proctored exams.

Now, rather than spending the time to go to a physical location, certification candidates check in with a proctor online, using a computer with a webcam. The proctor walks them through a “preflight check.” Test takers need to remove everything from their immediate workspace. No writing instruments. No whiteboards. No cue cards. They’re allowed to have a glass of water, but it has to be in clear glass. And the candidate has to flip his or her computer around the room to make sure that nobody else is present and that the rules are being adhered to. Then he or she can start the test.

Of course, one aspect of remote testing has changed this year. Previously, if you were taking an exam and somebody else came into the room, the test would be invalidated on the spot. Now, with people working from home and often in spaces that were never designed to be offices, a bit more leniency is needed. Should a certification candidate be disqualified because the kids have invaded the tester’s space unexpectedly? Of course not. We’ve set the leniency factor for our testing to be as wide as possible.

2. Add Digital Badging

Recently, Thought Industries profiled the Kinaxis digital badge program, which currently stands at 25 badges. As Jennifer Jones explained in that article, we jumpstarted the program by issuing badges to everybody who had earned a certification prior to the launch. Now, when hiring managers or potential clients check out a person’s LinkedIn profile, they will see a Kinaxis digital badge and can click on it to find out what skills they demonstrated to earn the badge.

What I didn’t share in that story is this: Too often, digital badges are used these days by some organizations to serve as participation trophies. Because somebody completed a course, he or she received an end-of-course certificate, which came with the badge. Or he or she demonstrated mastery in a single skill and got a badge for that. Those are what I’d call “cheap certifications.”

I prefer to think that the digital badge program we’ve developed is a great way to show off actual skills and the route that was taken to prove those skills. The accomplishment can’t be forged because digital badges contain metadata. They are typically managed through a third-party company that provides instant information about the richness of the certification from that metadata, completed by the issuing organization.

The Kinaxis digital badging program is still nascent. It was only launched in fall 2019. But I’m already seeing way more excitement from candidates than I ever saw with traditional certifications. In the past, I’d rarely hear from newly certified people that they needed their certificate as quickly as possible. But with the digital badges, I frequently get emails: “I just passed the exam. When do I get my badge?” That level of “Right. Now.” engagement is music to my ears and tells me we achieved the goal we were after — to keep interest in certifications high.

The next step in digital badging at Kinaxis is to extend the program for employee recognition, a project I’m working on with our HR department. In that scenario, we may end up issuing badges to employees for non-certification situations and focus on specific achievements instead, such as earning a “spirit of Kinaxis” employee award, for representing the company’s core values.

3. Go Deeper Not Broader

The idea of the 360-degree or holistic certification is alive and well. These have been around for a long time. Just look at the Cisco CCIE credential, which has long stipulated several years of job experience as a requirement of the certification. “We’re long past the point of a certification exam or a series of inconsistent classes being enough to guarantee readiness, let alone success,” the Association for Talent Development noted earlier this year in a trends report. That organization’s advice: “Begin by identifying a threshold that learners must meet before they are considered certified. Choose inputs that train and test knowledge, skills, and behavior.”

Taking their advice, we’ve added new categories of certifications, one on internal algorithms that’s useful to people who work with a supply chain focus, and the other on a new job role: solution architect. For that latter certification, we’ll have two tiers: the base level (core) architect and the specialist architect who works in specific verticals: aerospace and defense, high tech, consumer goods, pharma, automotive, and consumer electronics. Both credentials go deeper, not broader.

Yes, there are exams. But there are also additional requirements for practical experience in various shapes and forms. For instance, people who want to become core solution architects need to have relevant roles for a year or two in an engagement. Likewise, they need to have gone through a blueprint process with the customer, and mentored or managed people. In other words, they need to have practical experience that involves working in front of customers.

These aren’t the kinds of credentials that will get picked up by our ultimate end users. They’re more important for our consultants and partners. These aren’t for what one of our lead consultants called, “Bob the Builders.” The goal is to try to expedite implementations and cut down on escalations. If we can train people more fully, we cut down on the calls to support, and that’s a win all around. We want the implementations to happen as quickly as possible, but as effectively as possible, too.

4. Socially Promote Your Certifications

One aspect of certifications that has really come to the forefront is social promotion. Some of this acceleration is due to the introduction of digital badges, which are easy enough to add to auto-sigs, LinkedIn profiles and other social pages. But the shift to digital transformations in all of business is probably the key reason. When companies are hiring or contracting, they rely on the web for getting the word out, sharing the business opportunity and vetting their candidates.

We encourage our new credential holders to share their badges on social media. We also will post, with a candidate’s permission, and tag those with #kinaxiscert and #kinaxis for easy searching. We love it when they take photos of themselves wearing Kinaxis swag or showing their certificates. It all feeds into spotlighting the company and its certification program. And our executives are quick to jump on those posts and amplify them by cheering people on and sharing the good news among their own networks. The overall result is a fusion reaction: It feeds on itself. We don’t look at this as bragging but as celebrating success.

One word of advice: Make sure you get permission before you publicize somebody’s achievement. Not everybody wants to go public with their achievements, and you don’t want to get them into trouble.

5. Keep the Certifications Fresh

When you’re in a SaaS company, how do you know when it’s time to refresh your exams and your certification programs? After all, the software is continually being updated, so shouldn’t the tests reflect that? In our case a lot of the changes are under the hood. And our customers run the gamut. Most prefer to be on the bleeding edge while others don’t immediately adopt the latest version of the software.

So, we’ve set a rule for ourselves: We never let an exam age beyond 18 months. But all through that period we roll in new questions to keep up with the state of the software. We don’t make a big deal out of it by giving the certification a new version number. And we’re continually updating our training and documentation as new features are introduced. When enough of those features come out, we make a complete update to the course, and that’s reflected in the exam too. That said, we design our courses to be as modular as possible, which makes it simpler for us to keep them fresh and timely.

5 Certification Mistakes Companies Make

I’ve been in the certification business for a long time, so I’ve seen how credentials come and go. But some blunders are always with us. Here are five common ones I see companies make over and over.

Thinking short-term. Plenty of companies want a certification program but they don’t realize what it’s going to cost. If they do it on the cheap, it looks cheap and ultimately won’t work. I liken certifications to the adoption of a pet. It requires maintenance; it requires feeding. The same is true with exams. You are incurring a perpetual expense until you decide you want to retire the exam. Consider that before you make the decision.

Not being selective. Some organizations have too many certifications that are way too simple to earn. If your credential comes across like a participation trophy, it won’t deliver the impact you want. Conversely, you don’t the program to make it too hard for people to get certified. If there are too many barriers, they won’t bother. I pay attention to pass rates to stay on top of those concerns; if nobody ever misses a given question, that tells me it’s too easy and I change it out.

Letting certifications become irrelevant. There are two schools of thought with recertification:
1) Have it and make it complicated for people to recertify; or 2) allow the market to determine the value of the certification. My MCSE credential covering Windows NT 4.0 is an example of that. Sure, I’m certified, but don’t trust me with your current Windows 10 enterprise administration. Figure out which route you want to go and stick with it so people aren’t surprised.

Punching above weight. Don’t compete in areas where there are already vendor-neutral certifications. In our segment, for example, the Association for Supply Chain Management is well known for its supply chain and logistics credentials. They’re going to do a better job than we will on vendor-neutral topics. And theirs is more recognized. Why should we compete?

Investing too much in swag. Early on companies would offer logoed shirts, hats, bags, and water bottles to nudge people into getting certifications. Those days are gone. It’s just too expensive to keep that level going. Put your energy and resources into promoting the value of your credentials and keeping them high-quality. That’ll be the better investment for everybody.

3 LMS Features You’ll Want for Certifications

Choosing the right learning management system can help you deliver several aspects of your certification program. Here are three features I can’t do without:

  • Myriad question types. Make sure your LMS can deliver more than just true-false or multiple choice. What else is there? how about matching, sequencing, multiple answer, and dropdown multiple choice?
  • Robust reporting. I like to see data by demographic, by certification, by country, by company, and so on. The more granular detail available, the better.
  • Open standards. You’ll want an LMS that can hook into your badging system, customer management system, and other programs your company relies on. Otherwise, you’ll be doing double-entry, which is never very fun.

Kinaxis is a public company. When the certification program is mentioned in investor calls, I’m thrilled because I can literally feel the support of the company behind the program. We recognize that brand loyalty — and sales — depends on people feeling comfortable with the product and their ability to apply what they’ve learned with confidence. Keeping our certification program meaningful is one of the most important jobs I do.

Joe Cannata has many years of expertise in the development of training and certification programs for some of the world’s largest tech companies, including Hewlett-Packard and Brocade. Most recently, he serves as the certification director for Kinaxis, as a board member for CEdMA, a leading professional association for training leaders, and as an advisory committee chair for the National Institute for Social Media. Reach Joe through LinkedIn and Twitter.

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