Advantages and Disadvantages of Certifications
By Nader K. Rad
Like everything else, there are pros and cons in project [management] certifications. These are the most important ones that I can think of:
- Advantage: recognition and credit
- Advantage: structured learning
- Advantage: integrated and holistic approach
- Disadvantage: arrogance
- Disadvantage: biases
- Common problem: shortcuts
So, let me now explain each point in turn.
Advantage: recognition and credit
I started working on projects about 22 years ago. I’ve always been interested in learning and have on average spent about 3 hours a day learning new things.
A few years after I started my career, which was initially as a project planner, the PMP certification became really popular around me, and people kept talking about it, so I started learning it very seriously. After 18 months of study (yes, I really go into detail), I was sure I knew the topic very well, but I didn’t see a reason to take the exam. After all, it was just a piece of paper! However, I came across some problems.
The main problem was that people didn’t recognize me as an expert on the PMBOK® Guide, and used to argue with me about my approach and its compatibility with the PMBOK Guide. No matter how much I explained it to them, they didn’t accept my opinion. So, finally, I gave up and took the exam. I passed it easily and got certified – and all of a sudden, all those problems went away! People didn’t argue with me anymore, and my company was also very happy and used to brag about having a PMP-certified planner, even though I was the same person with the same knowledge.
Anyway, I realized that it was easier to prove my knowledge by getting certified rather than trying to convince people. Since then, I attained many more certificates, and I recommend doing so to everyone. It simply helps you in your career.
Advantage: structured learning
Some people are so drowned in daily work that they do not invest in learning. They can still improve, but only based on the experience they gain in projects. If they combine that experience with active learning, though, their progress will be much faster.
How would I go about learning?
One way is to keep reading books and articles, attending conferences and webinars, etc. However, it’s a random learning approach that may not be optimal for achieving goals. Certification programs, on the other hand, provide a structured learning path on a certain topic. As a result, you don’t need to worry about what to learn and can focus on a syllabus that a number of experts have prepared, and probably improved over several years.
For serious practitioners, each certification program can be considered as a starting point for further learning. For example, for the PMP exam, besides learning the topics and passing the exam, you can start going into the specifics of each domain by finding more advanced and detailed resources. In other words, you can consider each certification program as a high-level framework for learning.
Advantage: integrated and holistic approach
Some topics are interesting, some are just so-so, and to be honest, some are really boring. In freestyle learning, we usually focus on the most interesting parts and ignore the boring topics. However, what we need in projects is a holistic, integrated approach that covers everything. When you decide to aim for a certification program, you have to learn about all the relevant topics, which will help you in the future.
Some people think that everything is finished after getting a certificate, that they don’t need to learn anymore, and that they have become the master of the Universe!
That’s really harmful, both to the projects and to the personal careers of those people.
Although certification programs provide structured and integrated learning opportunities, we should not forget that each of them has its own perspective on the projects, and they are never neutral. In other words, they see the projects through their own lens. As a result, if you limit yourself to one certificate, you may have a biased view.
For example, the way the PMBOK® Guide categorizes project management actions into processes, and then the processes into process groups and knowledge areas, is only its way of modeling the actions, and not a universal truth. However, because of its popularity, we see many resources mentioning those elements as generic project management elements, without even mentioning the PMBOK Guide. Regardless of the quality of the model, it’s harmful to consider it as universal, because it blocks diversity of perspectives and ideas.
Another example is Scrum certification programs, which have a very specific perspective on projects, and yet sometimes imply that other perspectives and approaches are unacceptable (or silly!).
Common problem: shortcuts
I’ve talked to many people who have certificates for PRINCE2®, Agile, or PMP®, and yet have no idea about those concepts! When I dig deeper, I realize that they have taken intensive courses in which they were bombarded with information for a few days, followed by an exam. Many of the courses only teach how to pass the exam, rather than the concepts that are the subject of the exam. Obviously, those people don’t get much out of the certification program.
A general principle in learning is that it has to be gradual and continuous, without excessive pressure. That’s how you have time to digest and absorb the information. When you learn quickly and intensively, you also forget it quickly. This is one of the reasons I prefer eLearning courses, which people usually take over about a month instead of a couple of days, and why I have focused on creating eLearning courses instead of delivering classroom-based ones.
Overall, I do recommend aiming for certifications, but I also suggest being aware of and managing the disadvantages.