Real SMB IT: The ‘Certification’ Catch 22

March 8, 2010

The folks at Plan-Net pointed me to their post titled; Experiential Learning explained through Confucius

The above post is targeted at teaching IT staff understanding of, rather than the just the theory of ITIL(Emphasis mine);

The know-how is more important than the know-what, therefore certificates may not be enough if they do not give practical experience of the knowledge they provide.

For managers in the small to medium business space, this issue goes much farther than just ITIL.

Hiring IT Staff

If you are a manager in the smaller business, you may not have the full technical ability to validate a prospective candidates actual technical skill sets.

So when it comes time to look at hiring, what do we do?

One thing we commonly use is a proxy that we hope proves that particular candidates have the skills that they claim they do, and that proxy?; The certification.

Cognitive vs Experiential Learning

What happens when a young child touches a hot stove? Experiential learning (direct experience). You can accurately predict that they won’t likely touch a hot stove again. Experience effectively demonstrated that it is an unpleasant thing to do!

As we move beyond infancy and early childhood, we begin to utilize cognitive or academic learning.  In this case we learn without having the direct experience ourselves.  We learn from having been told, we learn that there are positive or negative consequences in particular actions, even if personally never have performed that action before.  (I have never been in an air craft accident, but I don’t need personal experience to know that I never want to either!)

This experiential vs cognitive has nothing to directly do with age, we are individuals, some of us learn better one way (ie experiential) than others. Just as some are graphic learners, others auditory learners etc.

Because different people learn in different ways, the certification can be a fairly weak proxy of usable skill sets. Certainly, many people can can study mounds of material and be be able to apply much of it to real world issues, many others won’t. They may have memorized the material needed to pass certain exams, but do not have the ability to directly use that learning to apply to real world issues without the experience of trial and error in the real world.

This issue with how people learn leads to an issue where technical certification of a candidate exists, but the candidate has trouble finding the On / Off switch when dumped into an unfamiliar environment.

The SMB Takeaway

While technical certifications can be a minor proxy for technical skill. Do not rely on it as the one and only metric. If you do not have the ability to actively test for the IT skill set you are looking for, perhaps a member of your peer group, or a contracting firm can.

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