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The Association’s Pursuit for Relevance: What Role Do Certifications, Certificates and Micro-Credentials Play?

As has been discussed at length, for a number of years – the viability of associations is under attack and the relevance of many associations is in question.  Although that may be the headline, I believe the real issue at hand is the fact that many associations have yet to evolve with the Digital Age and adapt their value proposition.

value proposition

Allow me to draw a comparative line.  I am reminded of libraries, which in many ways, are quite similar to associations.  I recently watched a great video, which showcased Vancouver’s central library branch, as they are intentionally employing non-traditional library offerings, in order to evolve with the Digital Age.  They hold strong to their roots, of lending books and providing a space where people can come together to meet.  However, having reflected on the needs of their constituents, the library has expanded their value proposition to encompass new ways for people to create and share their stories and ideas.  They now provide opportunities for the public to come into the library to record video and audio and then edit it, to create digital content, or explore virtual reality together, at VR stations within the library.

Taking from this amazing example from the Vancouver central library branch, what traditional constructs can associations seek to adapt, in order to evolve with the Digital Age and transform their value proposition?  How can associations engage constituents in new ways, providing mutual benefit to the association and the constituent?

To answer these questions, I would like to focus on the structures that often guide the educational products provided by associations and how these structures can be used to illuminate three key needs of your constituents, which they seek to find when they examine your value proposition.

First of all, by structures, I am specifically referring to the guiding standards for credentialing within any profession or industry, as they often dictate what learning formats and mechanisms are required and/or acceptable.  Let’s define some of the key concepts within the credentialing industry.


In preparation for this post, we turned to one of our clients, The Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE), to unpack these concepts.  ICE is a leading developer of standards for both certification and certificate programs and is both a provider of and a clearinghouse for information on trends in certification, test development and delivery, assessment-based certificate programs, and other information relevant to the credentialing community.

Here are some of the leading concepts within the credentialing industry, as paraphrased, from our preparation time with ICE.

  • Credentialing: This is an umbrella term, used to refer to concepts such as certification, licensure, certificate programs, micro-credentialing, accreditation, etc. This refers to anything that is intended to show learning or competency.
  • Certification Program: This typically uses structured requirements to test knowledge, skills and abilities, and includes an assessment to demonstrate proven competence. Often certification programs have eligibility requirements (i.e. served in the profession ‘X’ number of years, etc…) and/or may be a requirement for employment or practice within the profession.  Typically, certification programs have ongoing renewal requirements, in the way of re-certification or maintenance of certification.
  • Certificate Program: This is typically an education experience or training program that seeks to teach very specific learning objectives; although it may or may not have an assessment to demonstrate competence or the learner’s achievement of the learning objectives.
  • Micro-Credential: Often viewed as a mini-certification, which serves as proof that a learner has mastered a specific skill or area of study. Micro-credentials are smaller than full certification programs, therefore require less ongoing commitment of time and investment on the part of the learner.  Often micro-credentials are represented by digital badges, which may be awarded upon completion – additionally, micro-credentials are typically seen as stackable, to attain a broader competency or sets of skills.

Now, what I am not going to do, is take the remainder of this post to outline next steps and tips to help you start a new certification or certificate program.  I will leave that to the professionals.  If you would like more information on that, here is a resource on ICE’s website to help get you started.


Let’s focus on using these credentialing vehicles as ammunition, to re-shape your association’s value proposition!

Leveraging these tools, to embody a refreshed value proposition, which aligns with the needs of your industry and constituents, may be easier than you think.  I am going to outline three core needs of today’s ‘contemporary constituent’, which can be positioned as themes woven throughout your association’s transformed value proposition – then I will align them with one of the credentialing concepts previously outlined.

Subscribe & Filter

We have moved from an economy of ownership to a sharing economy and a subscription economy. This is being realized in our consumer world, our professional landscape and all around us.  No longer do we want to spend $150 to buy a hard drive, that we physically own, in order to store and back up our pictures – we want to subscribe to a cloud-service, whereby we filter through the service options available to us, control how much or little of the service we want to utilize, filter through other similar services available and have the power to stay with the service or un-subscribe as we please.

Micro-credentials present professionals seeking formal learning with very similar flexibilities.  Instead of buying into a long one or two-year certification program, learners can choose from a pool of available micro-credentials, which may only take a few classes to attain.  Then, if that micro-credential’s area of study does not meet the needs of the learner, they have the ability to filter through other micro-credential options or ‘un-subscribe’ by not pursuing further micro-credentials with that organization and/or not pursuing micro-credentials in that area of study.  No longer are learners constrained with the burden of ownership that may come with a committed certification program, which requires re-certification or maintenance of certification on an ongoing basis.

Engage & Create

The social apps and consumer-facing technology tools at our disposal put us in the driver seat – they provide us with control, they engage us, and they have molded us into creators. Think about when you take a picture on your phone.  Compared to 10 (or even 5) years ago, no longer do you ‘receive’ a picture back in turn, which you can passively view – now you have the ability to edit it in dozens of ways almost immediately, share it with others to get feedback or elicit a response and/or utilize it as a building block in a larger creation (i.e. think of Splice).  Our experiences as consumers, have conditioned us to operate in these ways.

Now I compare that to much of the professional learning experiences available today – even those made available for licensure, re-certification or a certificate program.  Often these experiences are similar to the picture we took on our phone 10 (or even 5) years ago – we are simply receiving educational content, which we can passively view.  This is where a certification program or even an assessment-based certificate program aligns well, as individual learning activities (i.e. a live webinar, on-demand video or course module) can be wrapped with engaging activities to allow a learner to create a model based upon their learnings, share the model with a fellow learner to gain their feedback and apply the feedback to create another iteration of the model, share the 2nd iteration with a larger co-hort etc….  I firmly believe today’s modern constituent is seeking out opportunities to get actively involved and this is a filter they use, when evaluating an association’s value proposition.  No longer complacent on the sidelines, we are active participants, who need to engage and create.


Each of us maintains an online presence or multiple ‘online presences’ and quite actively. Daily, weekly, monthly we meticulously curate what we share via our online presence and carefully promote or showcase our accomplishments.  Our online presence is a tool, which we can utilize to establish new personal and professional connections, seek out new opportunities, maintain career mobility and climb to new professional heights.

The output of a micro-credential aligns well with our need to continually maintain our professional online presence. As outlined earlier in this post, often micro-credentials are represented by digital badges, which may be awarded upon completion.  Digital badges can easily be showcased on a LinkedIn profile and/or stored in a virtual backpack, as a visual representation of ongoing achievement and lifelong learning.  Micro-credentials present precisely what today’s contemporary constituent needs to promote and maintain their digital presence, in our evolving Digital Age.

As I stated up front, I believe the issue at hand is the fact that many associations have yet to evolve with the Digital Age and adapt their value proposition, therefore their relevance and role is in question.

The fact is the Digital Age has brought about tremendous change.  It has changed the way we interact and engage with others, the way in which we learn and grow, the way we work, the way we map out our careers, the way we view our personal and professional value and the expectations we bring to those organizations we seek value from.

Within these changes, awaits tremendous opportunity, for today’s associations.

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