Monday, November 26, 2007

Alphabet Soup

When I was a kid, I used to eat alphabet soup with some regularity. You'd get that bowl of hot soup and proceed to try and make words from all those letters. I'd try and try, but out of all those letters, I'd inevitably get "C-A-T" and cold soup. And the funny thing was that hot soup tasted good, but after spending a lot of time trying to make sense of those letters, I'd end up with foul-tasting cold soup and mushy letters. There's a lesson somewhere in that analogy...

I've had the opportunity to take a look at Mimi Dionne's new blog. Mimi has been around the industry for a while and is definitely one of our shining stars. But I'm a little worried about her. In her first post, she talks about all of the various certifications and certificates that she has obtained or is interested in obtaining over and above her Master's degree. She asks the question, "When is enough... enough?"

I suppose that I am concerned about the seeming proliferation of initials following the names of people in our industry. At a certain point, they all seem rather trite and self-serving. Now, I'll be quick to point out that I have a Master's degree and have been a CRM for 15 years. I'm very proud of both of those pieces of paper and they hang prominently in my office (hey, if the lawyers all display their JDs, I'm going to put up my sheepskin). What seems to be happening recently is that some people in our industry, as well as some organizations, seem to think that the measure of the professional is based upon the string of initials after his or her name. Rather crudely put, this becomes a game of "mine is bigger than yours". And these same folks seem to think that the distribution of these initials is a lucrative business opportunity in which you only are admitted to take the tests when you have paid some serious cash to prepare for the exam. In my mind that becomes a very dangerous game of exchanging cash for perceived credibility.

What bothers me more is that the various certificates are being promoted as equivalent to certifications in our industry. In my experience, there is a very real difference between the certification process and the certificate process. There are some out there who would argue that even a certification doesn't equate competency. I would tend to agree with that. I know of CRMs and CAs who are clueless hacks and happened to test well. I know of many un-credentialed practitioners who are very highly qualified professionals. But what I fear is a glut of vendor types and others who see records management / content management as the fad du jour and possessing a string of initials after their names makes them absolutely credible. For these folks, the initials are a way to sell product / services or occupy a seat in an organization until something better comes along. To these folks, records management is not a career, or a profession, or even (to use a term from my past) a "vocation". They want to make a buck and move along.

Earlier today, I found a question posted on LinkedIn (a social networking site) that asked about records management. The person posing the question wanted folks to provide him with a "records management policy". I read through the answers that had been given. The people doing the answers were Ph.Ds and JDs and some had all sorts of initials after their names. A couple of them knew what they were talking about -- but most gave pretty weak advice. But none of them were records managers (until I posted an answer). Unfortunately, most came across pretty credibly. It's a hot topic. People spouted what I would describe as "book answers".

Back in the late 90's (yeah, all those years ago), when the Internet and the IT arena was going gangbusters, there were an incredible number of certificates out there. You could be a Microsoft Certified this or a Novell that or a Lotus something or other. Pay the bucks, take a test and print out your certificate. The theory was that with technology moving so quickly, the only way that an IT manager could tell if someone really knew their stuff was if they had the current Microsoft whatever certificate. And people ate that stuff up in the consulting world like there was no tomorrow. Whenever I was "on the bench", my fellow benchwarmers would be studying up on whatever they needed that week to be marketable.

So I suppose that experience left a bad taste in my mouth. I watched people bleed out the ears chasing the latest software or operating system version, only to be stymied when a client actually wanted them to evaluate competing products. Oh, they could set up this one or that one. They could make the things work. But they couldn't do critical thinking. They didn't see what made the most sense for the client. They could implement the solution, but they couldn't decide which solution made the most sense for the client. But clients just wanted things to work -- and they wanted the latest and greatest thing. Solution implementation was in; solution assessment was out.

I fear that some of these certificates in our industry take people down the same sort of path. While the certificates are vendor agnostic, they still constitute book-learning for the most part. As I said in a prior post, you'll know your dpi and network topology, but will you really understand how to make the system fit into the larger scheme of records management?

So are they really all bad? I'm not sure. I have 20+ (holy cow!) years of experience, with 15 of those hanging around imaging systems and serious technology. I would suggest that I have a pretty good grounding in the technology of our industry. Expert? Perhaps. Could I learn anything from a certificate program? Maybe some little bit of trivia or some shortcut to calculate required disk space. But what experience adds to the mix is the understanding of how these things need to work in the real world. In that same post about spinning that IT manager's head around, I pointed out all of the issues that I have learned through hard experience. They aren't necessarily things that you get from "the book". I've learned that you have to consider user, functional and system requirements, very often in that order, in order to get a system accepted and implemented. You have to consider corporate reality. And you have to prove your case. Technology is not always the answer to every business problem. Sometimes all that technology does is make bad things happen faster.

One of the first things that I learned when doing process mapping and in taking Six Sigma courses (as well as from implementing Six Sigma) is that you have to understand the root cause of what is broken in a process. You can't try to fix the symptoms of a problem when you don't know what the underlying disease happens to be. Determining what the root cause is requires very critical thinking, not simply book knowledge.

So when is enough... enough? In some respects, learning should never stop. Good certification programs require the certification holder to continually refresh (and share) his or her knowledge in the industry. There is always something new to learn. There is always something new to try (like blogs). As a professional, you should never be satisfied that you know all there is to know about your profession. It evolves and you must evolve with it. But above all, you must hone your critical thinking and ability to define solutions based upon a broad range of knowledge, not the "solution" offered by a vendor's presentation or gained by attending some expensive classes and passing a test. There is a need for good solutions for an organization, but those solutions must accurately reflect the business requirements and need.

There is another factor at work here in this rush to add initials after our names, I think. Records managers tend to have bootstrapped their way into their positions. They worry that they don't have a particular degree or something that shows that they know what they are talking about. Fifteen years ago, that's one of the motivations that brought me to the CRM. But over time, I've found that my Master's degree carries more weight and that the CRM simply indicates that I am a professional. This is my career. If I am truly a professional, I don't need to go add a bunch of initials after my name to prove that I know my business. I can articulate the business requirements of good records management and I can select the systems and processes that contribute to a compliant program. That is what is expected of a professional. If you see a lawyer about a will, do you ask him for his will-making certificate? If your doctor is going to prescribe a drug to you to remedy an illness, do you ask to see her certificate for that malady?

Records managers must stop seeing themselves as somehow lacking as professionals. This "woe is me" attitude serves no one well. If this is your career and your profession, act as a professional. Learn at every opportunity and share that learning. Don't chase the latest fad or the latest buzzword. Understand how that buzzword fits (or what it is really describing), but keep your eye on the bigger picture and ensure that you understand the fundamentals. The buzzword of the day will soon fade into something else -- and you'll know all along, just being a good records manager is enough to solve the perceived problem. If your organization just sees you as "the file lady" or "the box guy", it's time to move on. And if you can't grow in your role, then all of the initials in the world won't give you one iota of additional credibility. Cure the disease, not the symptom.

And so I would say to Mimi, you're certainly welcome to add to those initials after your name. You may actually learn something new to add to your tool belt. Evaluate those programs on the basis of what you can learn; not on the basis of the perceived credibility of some "credential". But you don't need to do it to impress me or make me think that you're a professional. I already know that. And I suspect that most everyone else knows that as well. Never stop learning and never stop sharing. But don't focus on the letters for so long that your soup gets cold.


(As always, my blog posts are my personal opinions and not those of my employer or any other organization.)

1 comment:

Ray Cunningham said...

As one of those going out and getting every certification/certificate de jour I think what you are describing and your observations contain much wisdom. I have had frequent phone calls from confused professionals saying "is this worth it?" The answer is most often maybe.
I am doing many of these for several reasons - the first is to learn about the program so I can recommend (or not) the program to others. My employer pays for them so why not take them.
I also do this to stay current and keep the pulse of the industry (along with reading and attending AIIM and ARMA functions). I think I am better for it but this path is not for all as they are too expensive.
I have found some value from all of them but are they all equal?. Patrick, they certainly are not. You are right, many in the industry are pushing them as if they are.
CompTIA’s CDIA+ is a technical certification. Anyone can take it and pass. It is not a certification in the sense of the CRM under any standard. Is it valuable? If an employer wants it then it does have value. Equivalence? No. I don’t think it was ever meant to be a professional certification.
When I was a boy back in the 1980s the CRM was for those records managers without degrees. Since I had a master’s degree I was told by an old ARMA member that I did not need it (I will spare the person who told me this in 1985 of embarrassment). About 1992 contract work with the Feds began to require the CRM. That was a signal to me that it was time to sharpen the pencil and pass the test! Today I believe that the CRM is what is required of any practicing records manager. Many of these change over time.
Fast forward to today. Now there are a number of organizations making a living offering certification/certificates. If I were looking at a cost benefit ratio for many I would say they may not be worth it.
Perhaps $2700 is a bit steep (the CRM is a bargain folks) but I think that the value of AIIM’s programs is something that should not be overlooked. For many this will be the first view of the CIO’s perspective of information management. The international focus is not only valuable but is a stepping stone for many into the global information management world.
Look at them as continuing education. Right now I am doing a project management 40 hour course to eventually take PMI’s PMP certification. So I have all those letters – I still think that there are many that I would recommend for positions over my skills and experience. But what about my future prospective employers? If I have the CRM, CA, CDIA+, ERM, ECM etc it shows that I am active and have been exposed to more modern methodologies. It gets me in the door for sure.

Are they worth it? If someone explains to me their career goals and who is paying for the particular program then the question can be answered. Should there be a better understanding on the part of the consumer for what they are getting? Absolutely.

I also have observed that organizations are eager to cash in on the continuing education bandwagon and there are more of these to come. Caveat emptor.