Certification: What's in a name?

Summary:The technology industry is awash with certifications at the individual and organisational level, but are these qualifications worth the paper they're printed on?



The technology industry is awash with certifications at the individual and organisational level, but are these qualifications worth the paper they're printed on?


Contents
Weighing up the benefits of quality
Certification costs, but who's buying?
Hard to measure
Case study
Executive summary

The best thing about standards, the old saying goes, is that there are so many of them to choose from. The same could definitely be said about industry certifications, which in recent years have proliferated in number and scope to become major drivers for change within all sorts of businesses and service providers.

Or have they? Certainly, certification by third parties offers the promise that a company has been audited and found to meet certain required standards. Ditto individual certifications, which became hot commodities during the dot-com era, when talent was in high demand and often exorbitant salaries were frequently related to the number of letters after a candidate's name.

"Since the new edition of ISO 9000 was released in 2000, its come a long way -- but CMM is still the Bible to go to if you want to develop good internal processes."
Similarly, the past five years have seen the rise of company-wide certifications, such as ISO 9001 or the CMM (Capabilities Maturity Model) family of standards, as a way of differentiating a company's products and services to potential customers. Indian outsourcers have used this strategy to great effect, pursuing CMMI (CMM Integration) Level 5 certification with unparalleled vigour in order to create a perception that they stand for quality as well as low prices.

Before you let yourself become bedazzled by the array of framed certificates on the reception wall, however, it's important to remember that certifications may not always be what they've cracked up to be. Guidelines for assessment against known standards are widely available; some companies pursuing certification have been known to use these guidelines to fudge audits. Mountains of normally unused documentation may be produced specifically to pass an audit but sit fallow in everyday usage, while employees may be trained in how to pass an audit yet still lack the inherent quality philosophy that the standards try to imbue.

In other words, many companies may well be following the letter of the law, but not its spirit. Just ask Quentin Goldfinch, director of R&D with Avaya Labs Australia. In his years of experience, Goldfinch has worked with many companies where certification was approached more from a tick-the-box perspective than by actually building a quality culture. One person on his current team previously worked as a CMM assessor and saw many companies working hard specifically for the purpose of passing the required audits.

"Being manufacturing oriented, ISO was originally all about repeatability and it was process focused," he explains. "As long as your processes were within acceptable limits, you were in good shape. But it didn't particularly require companies to reach any particular quality standard, as long as you could produce mediocre quality continuously. Since the new edition of ISO 9000 was released in 2000, it's come a long way -- but CMM is still the Bible to go to if you want to develop good internal processes."

This disconnect is reflected in the bifurcated approach that Avaya Labs has taken towards quality certification. Part of global internetworking and voice systems vendor Avaya, the operation is certified to ISO 9001 quality standards -- now mandatory for supplying many government and commercial contracts -- but uses CMM's process and metric-driven principles to guide its long-term philosophical mindset.

"CMM improves our capabilities because project managers can decide what they need to do to get the best possible outcome from their projects."
It has not pursued formal CMM certification, however -- a point that Goldfinch explains away by arguing that an informal CMM approach allows the organisation to retain its flexibility.

"The fact we are using CMM because we want to means that we will use it the best way we can," he says. "It improves our capabilities because project managers can decide what they need to do to get the best possible outcome from their projects. We share that experience to other projects and across the organisation, and we have process groups that work across projects. We can pick and choose the best things out of CMM and -- instead of having 100 percent coverage of everything CMM -- can be more selective and value-driven in what we do."

Topics: Telcos

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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