Early in my career I didn’t understand the value of credentials. I thought that if I did good work, I would get promoted and that passing some silly exam didn’t prove anything.
Over the years my opinion has changed completely. I now understand the discipline required to earn a certification and the value that comes with knowing an industry standard way of operating. I’ve just finished writing a study guide for PMI®’s business analysis certification, the PMI-PBA®. In 2012 I wrote a similar study guide for IIBA®’s CBAP® and CCBA® certifications. After spending over 1000 hours writing about these certifications, I thought I’d share my conclusions.
I have changed my thinking about certifications gradually over the last ten years. Part of the reason is the overwhelming scientific evidence about how human beings learn.
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I have been working in learning and development organizations for 25 years. I have been frustrated by how many students attend a class but don’t retain the information or put their new skills to use. I have continually improved the way I present information to students, realizing that learning doesn’t happen in a couple of days. It takes reinforcement over time. It requires the learner to be forced to recall and demonstrate the new skills.
It is now indisputable that testing is one of the best ways to make sure that humans learn new materials. It turns out that our brains learn best by being forced to recall things that we have learned. The more we recall, practice, reinforce learning, the more likely we will retain it, and these skills will become second nature to us.
In addition to the neuroscience, which proves that testing is a strong learning tool, I have experienced the preparation and study activities necessary to pass a certification exam. In the past 10 years, I have taken four certification exams! Each one required a different level of study based on my work experience. In each case, I started out thinking that I knew everything I needed to know about the topic but each time I was humbled by how much more knowledge and skills were available to me. I was exposed to new ways of thinking, new techniques, and most importantly, I reinforced the things I had already learned and learned them at a deeper level.
Preparing for a difficult exam requires a commitment to achieve, a plan for accomplishing your goal, a willingness to take a risk, and diligence in sticking to the milestones you set. It requires you step outside your comfort zone and push yourself in a new direction. All of these requirements are characteristics of successful business analysts. We love to learn new things, solve complex problems, and conquer tough challenges. Passing a tough exam builds your confidence in taking on new challenges. Earning a certification demonstrates your competence and enriches your personal value.
Taking the exam is a small part of the certification process. A strong certification program requires you to learn the breadth and depth of a body of work which few people would learn in their day to day work. Learning about things you have not yet experienced prepares you for more challenging assignments. Forcing yourself to recall key ideas and concepts, cements them into your neurons. In addition, a certifying organization requires you to keep the learning alive while adding new knowledge through continuing education requirements.
The business analysis certification programs offered by IIBA and PMI continue to rely more and more on situational questions rather than just asking about terms and definitions. These scenarios allow you to demonstrate that you make good decisions and choose the appropriate analysis techniques for each situation.
In addition to the benefits of learning and reinforcing your skills, earning a certification shows the world that you can commit to a tough goal and achieve it. It gives you confidence in your knowledge and strengthens your ability to work effectively. Maintaining certification forces you to keep up with current trends and give back to the profession. You become a mentor to others who desire to earn the certification, and you become a leader in your profession.
As a profession, it is in all of our best interests to have strong certifications. None of us would ever consider seeing a doctor or lawyer who wasn’t certified or licensed. In many professions, these tests are considered entry level requirements. A lawyer is not allowed to practice law in America without first passing the state bar exam. A nurse cannot see patients until he has received his license. If we want business analysis work to be valued and rewarded, we need to hold ourselves to a very high standard. A certification program provides the basis for that standard.
When you started reading this article you may have hoped that I would tell you which business analysis certification to earn. That is up to you. I am interested increasing awareness of the value of business analysis work and support any rigorous certification program which will advance our profession. Choosing the best program for you is another learning challenge which I encourage you to undertake!