Sunday, October 16, 2011

ATR: CRM versus Information Certification Cage Match

So what in the world was I doing getting up at 6AM on a chilly Saturday morning? A couple of weeks ago I got up to go and take AIIM’s Information Certification exam. Why? Actually, mainly so I could write this blog post. Seriously? Sort of.  I felt that if I was going to talk about the IC (my abbreviation for Information Certification from here on out), I darn well better have taken the test. It also helps to have passed the test (673 points out of a possible 800, with the passing score calculated at 560 points). I went into the exam absolutely cold. No prep classes, no review. I looked at the body of knowledge when it was announced, decided that I had good experience in most areas, signed up on a Thursday, and took the exam on Saturday. This blog post will talk about the IC and the CRM generally and then look at both critically.

As an aside, a little more than 20 years ago, when I was just a wee little records manager, my then boss and I trekked out to Lombard, IL to take the first five parts of the CRM exam. I passed those on the first shot, but part VI eluded me for a few tries. On the day I took the IC exam, I found myself a couple hundred yards away from where I took my CRM exam, so I guess it all comes full circle sometimes. 

So let’s back up a little. The IC is a 100 question, multiple choice examination sponsored by AIIM International. The test is offered through Prometric test centers on an ongoing basis, so you can take the exam pretty much at any time. There are no prerequisites, but I would forewarn folks that this is not a test to take lightly. The cost is $265. There is a modest certification maintenance requirement of 45 hours over three years to maintain certification. The CRM examination series is six exams, the first five of which must be passed before Part VI is taken. The first five parts are multiple choice exams of 100 questions each. Part VI consists of two essay questions. The exams are offered through Pearson VUE testing centers four times a year. The ICRM has mandated educational and work experience prerequisites for CRM candidates. The cost is $750 ($100 application fee, $100 for Parts I-V, and $150 for Part VI). The ICRM has a 100 hour certification maintenance requirement over a five year period. Clearly, these are two very different models.

Each examination has an accompanying Body of Knowledge and training (the IC training is still in development). I would characterize the IC Body of Knowledge as very broad and very IT-centric. The ICRM Body of Knowledge is very deep, but much more narrow and Records-centric. This stands to reason, given the nature of the certifications and the examinations.

I became a CRM in 1992 and expect to officially be recognized as a holder of AIIM’s Information Certification in a few weeks. None of what I am writing here should be construed as anything but my opinion. I am speaking on behalf of myself and no other organization. I have given AIIM and the ICRM the courtesy of seeing these comments ahead of posting. Their input is limited to correction of matters of fact or removal of content believed to be disclosure of their confidential or proprietary information. You will shortly note that the ICRM has just announced a number of changes to its exam. These changes have been in development for some time.

Information Certification: My Gripes

There are plenty of certifications where the certification exam consists of a 100 question examination. With over 200 “Examination Objectives”, the IC has a very formidable body of knowledge to test against and for test takers to master. In theory, that means that a typical IC examination can’t possibly cover every Objective in any sort of detail. Some of the Objectives are in areas that I would consider to be very immature in terms of the development of best practices. This would primarily be social media and collaboration, with cloud computing also in that realm of immaturity. Other areas are much more mature.

As with any new test, there will be some bugs. One question didn’t ask for the selection of two answers, but the exam software had been programmed to check for two answers (a good save on the part of the software, but likely confusing to some test-takers). I didn’t like a few questions because I couldn’t find an answer that I would agree with. A few questions were written awkwardly or didn’t have enough information to truly make a good answer selection. These are relatively minor gripes and they will work out over time as the question bank is continually refreshed and evaluated.

I’m still not sure how to display my new certification. The manner that AIIM displays the IC on its website isn’t something that I can put on a business card. It is generally typical for a certification to be shown as “C-something or other” (e.g. CRM, CA, CDIA, CIPP, CISSP, CISM, etc.). So this certification will probably have a hard time getting traction through visibility on business cards or email signatures. Perhaps that will become clearer when I get the official AIIM paperwork on passing the IC.

I’m a little concerned about the lack of educational and experiential requirements for the IC. While the exam content bar is fairly high, I would expect that a good test taker who goes to the test prep sessions will be able to pass the exam. And that is one of the main problems that I have with 100 question exams associated with sanctioned exam prep classes. If the prep class teaches to “the book” (whatever body of knowledge is used to formulate the questions), the students will take the test to “the book” and not necessarily to any real life experience.

My overall impression of the IC is that it was harder than I expected, but remember, I took the test completely cold. All I did to prepare for the exam was review the list of Knowledge Domains. Now I do have 25 years of workplace experience, a lot of technology experience, and over the past couple of years, a lot of Information Governance and Information Security experience. The average records manager will have a very hard time with this exam.

CRM: My Gripes

I don’t have current experience with the CRM exam beyond some hearsay from colleagues and a review of the ICRM Exam Preparation Handbook. Twenty years ago, I took all five multiple choice parts of the exam in one sitting and passed all five. Part VI took me a couple tries because I thought a little too far outside of the box. My primary concern is that the CRM exam may include testing on some areas that simply aren’t that relevant. My biggest area of concern is Part II, Records Creation and Use. Mail Management, Reprographics, and Forms Management are simply not relevant to me. Granted, I have moved beyond operational records management, but I have never had responsibility for any of those things in my career. I’d prefer to see a much greater focus on electronic records in this area, as well as greater attention to records requirements for electronic systems. Part III, Records Systems, Storage and Retrieval, is still too focused on paper records systems. While this area is still a core competency for records managers, there may need to be greater focus on managing active electronic records. Part V, Facilities, Equipment, Supplies and Technology should be phasing out micrographics in favor of other technologies. The CRM exam needs to move slightly more in the direction of the domains covered by the IC and away from the physical management of records. BREAKING NEWS: The ICRM announced at their annual Business Meeting that the CRM body of knowledge was being substantially updated, effective with the February, 2012 examination cycle. The revised body of knowledge corrects many of the deficiencies that I noted above. These changes should be published on the ICRM website in the near future.

In terms of rigor, the CRM exam requires considerably more education and experience, although these requirements are being slightly relaxed. Where the IC is a mile wide and a yard deep, the CRM is a mile deep and a yard wide. The CRM’s essay questions are also critical in that they show that the candidate can think on his or her feet and write coherently. In my mind, this is the greatest differentiator.

The biggest gripe with the CRM is that it is only offered four times a year. My understanding is that since the multiple choice sections are graded as completed, the CRM candidate who passes the first five sections in one sitting (or the last section that they need to pass) can immediately sit for Part VI during that exam cycle. This will reduce the cycle time for successful candidates, but makes for a grueling couple of days. The ICRM announced at their Business Meeting that four candidates had successfully accomplished this.

With regard to the examination process, my experience with the CRM exam goes back to the days of blue books and handwritten answers. That said, both exams are comparably administered for the multiple choice sections. I do have some concerns with the manner in which CRM Part VI is administered. Candidates must close out their first answer before selecting the second question to answer. This limits the candidate’s ability to edit their answer as well as refine the answer as they manage their time. While this is normally good test-taking strategy to manage the time allotted for Part VI, one colleague pointed out to me that this approach tests the candidate’s ability to quickly compose and articulate a response, in a manner similar to what would be expected of a professional in a workplace situation.

So Which One is Better?

As with any certification exam, a lot depends upon the goals of the individual. The IC will generally allow a candidate more velocity to achieve a certification. The CRM will test deeper records management knowledge and writing ability. When I first heard about the IC, I had some concerns that AIIM was setting a very low bar and that the IC had the potential to overtake the CRM as the primary credential for records managers. I still have some concerns about that, but a lot will depend upon how each certification is marketed and discussed across the industry. My personal opinion is that the IC will appeal to IT-centric candidates and candidates with more interest in electronic records systems and information governance. The CRM will appeal to the records management community and likely be seen as more relevant for consultants in the records management arena.

The CRM demonstrates greater alignment with the ARMA Core Competencies, but still has too much focus on paper records and peripheral services (the recent changes will correct this deficiency to some extent). The IC is more oriented to technology and electronic information systems, but lacks prerequisites and testing on records program management competencies.

I’m pleased that the IC has a certification maintenance requirement. I haven’t seen the annual cost to maintain certification, but I would expect that it is modest. The actual contact hour requirement amounts to attendance at a major educational conference every year, or the equivalent substitute experiences. The CRM is slightly more requiring, but they are pretty close.

Exam prep is an area of concern. The ICRM relies on volunteers for the most part and exam prep sessions at educational conferences and meetings. The IC exam prep will be offered by third party providers. The CRM exam’s prep is generally more professionally practical, but likely less consistent (again, the ICRM just announced that it is moving to standardize the exam prep content and will provide more guidance to instructors). The IC exam’s prep will likely be the opposite. My experience with third party test prep is that the preparation is delivered in “boot camps”, with the exam following immediately. Third party providers will often effectively promise success to candidates (although it is often couched in language that provides the candidate with a subsequent exam prep class for no charge). I’m not certain how this will shake out for the IC, but with third parties delivering the test prep, I expect that the approach will be similar to what I have experienced and observed in other certifications.

So which is better? I still give the nod to the CRM for thoroughness, but the IC has a lot going for it. I remain concerned that the IC with its related exam prep classes will turn into a certification factory (as with many other technology certifications). I worry about exams that rely heavily on what amounts to week-long cram sessions. I’m not sure that they provide true education and that teaching to the exam tends to generate certification holders with very little practical knowledge. That said, for an experienced records manager with a good grounding in technology, the IC might be a nice certification to supplement the CRM.


RG said...

Nice article Patrick. As a "wee little records manager" myself it is good to see comparisons. Rob G.

Nicky "D" said...

I too have contemplated taking the IC purely from an exploratory standpoint. I did the same with the "erm" that AIIM put out in around 2007 and was sadly disappointed for many of the "boot camp" reasons you point out Pat... and I am an "IT" guy!

Time will tell...

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