. The arguments for why you should get a certification tends to be some combination of these three ideas:
- Studying for a certification helps you learn a lot about business analysis.
- Acquiring a certification shows that you are dedicated to business analysis.
- Certifications are useful filters in hiring or promotion decisions.
Certifications aren't all they are cracked up to be, and most of the arguments for them are based on questionable assumptions. I’d like to look at these three arguments and suggest some different perspectives. As a result, you'll see that while certifications may have their place they are neither necessary nor sufficient, to ensure that you will be an effective business analyst.
Is Studying for a certification (test) the best way to learn?
A common question I see from people new to business analysis is “I want to become a business analyst, what certification should I get?” There’s an assumption underlying this question that a certification is the best way to break into the field of business analysis.
A better question to ask is how I can learn business analysis?
My answer, born out of my experience, is to find ways to start practicing it in your current situation. You don’t have to have the title business analyst to start using the techniques, and while studying for a test may be one way to learn information, it’s probably not the best. Stop and think about how much you remember from your high school geometry class. I’m willing to bet unless you use geometry on a regular basis, you don’t remember that much. And therein lies the difficulty in the argument that studying for a certification test is going to help you to learn and retain knowledge about business analysis on an ongoing basis.
You can organize learning into two forms: Just in Time, and Just in Case. Studying for a test is the classic example of Just in Case learning. You learn some piece of information just in case you’ll need to know that information sometime in the distant future, and you hope you can recall it.
Except you rarely do.
Just in Time learning is when you come across a specific situation and dig deep into a subject at that point because it’s immediately relevant.
Both forms of learning are helpful and require different depths of exploration. The “Just in Case” is good to build awareness that a concept exists, but there’s no point in digging too deep into that topic. If you aren’t going to use it, you aren't going to remember it. You then switch to Just in Time learning when that topic becomes relevant.
Studying for certification exams requires you to do deep dives on topics that you may never use in your actual work. You study enough to pass the test, then immediately forget it. Sure, you get the benefit of being aware of the concept, but you also end up wasting an awful lot of time and brain cycles remembering this information, potentially useless in your given situation, to pass a test.
A better use of time is getting very effective at Just in Time learning when the need arises, mixed in with Just in Case learning at a very high level.
The best way to learn something is to use it or try to teach it someone else. In my post How to Learn New Techniques, I describe The Feynman Technique which describes how you can go about learning thoroughly by teaching it to someone else.
Do you have to have a certification to show dedication?
When people acquire a certification, they are showing dedication to something - their career. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, but don’t confuse taking steps to advance your own career (I talk more about that below) with showing dedication to an entire profession.
Yes, many people who get certified are also heavily involved in the professional community. I’d be hard pressed to show a causal relationship between acquiring a certification and professional involvement.
There are also just as many people who aren’t certified who are also involved in a professional community and are dedicated to their careers and the profession. I’d count myself in this group.
You show dedication to business analysis when you help out with IIBA or a similar professional association at the local, national, or international level.
You show dedication to business analysis when you share your successes and your lessons learned, either via speaking or writing.
You show dedication to business analysis when you help those who are trying to start practicing business analysis.
You show dedication to your profession when you apply business analysis practices to help your team and your organization be more effective.
To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, a famous stoic and Roman emperor: Waste no more time arguing what a good Business Analyst should be. Be one.
Are Certifications a Good Filter for Hiring and Promotion decisions?
When organizations use certifications as a filter for hiring decisions there’s an implication that certifications indicate how well you can do the given thing that you are certified in. They don’t. What the certifications do show is that someone met the requirements of the certification which in most cases are not tied to ability.
Several organizations also expect that consultants or contractors they bring in have a certification in a specific framework they would like to implement. Those organizations have bought into the same line of thinking that organizations that use certifications for hiring decisions have accepted. It’s as unreliable in the case of consultants as it is for full-time employees.
Many organizations require their employees to get a certification within a certain time, give raises, or promotions to those that do. Their reason for doing that is generally one or both reasons I described above.
While I don’t agree with the reasons, many organizations have chosen to tie hiring or promotion decisions to whether you have a certification. The pragmatist in me advises you if there is a job out there that you’re interested in and it requires a certification, then it’s probably worth it to get the certification. If your current employer gives people raises or promotions when they get a certification, then it’s probably worth it to get the certification. Just be honest with yourself as to why you’re getting the certification.
A Pragmatic View of Certifications.
I have chosen to learn business analysis by practicing it and helping others learn it. I’ve shown my dedication to business analysis through involvement with the IIBA at a variety of levels and through sharing my ideas via my blog and at conferences. I have chosen not to get a CBAP or the PMI-ACP because I don’t believe they are helpful to my career.
I have acquired a couple of framework based certifications, but there were very specific reasons. In 2005, I got my Certified Scrum Master (CSM) because I took a 2-day class. I didn’t do it for the certification; I did it because, at that time, the class was a great introduction to Scrum. I also got my SAFe Program Consultant (SPC) certification a couple of years ago because my clients required people who worked with them to have it.
While you don’t need a certification to be an effective business analyst, you may find that having one may be helpful to your career in some situations. It’s important to know the difference.
For those of you without a certification, do you think you’ve been negatively impacted? For those of you with a certification, why did you choose to get it? Leave your thoughts in the comments.