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Over the past year, we have had an increasing number of inquiries asking the question: “Should I invest in a badging program, a certification program, or both?
The short answer is yes: it is time for you to consider adding badging to your customer education line of business, as it is making a significant impact on learning customer behavior.
Let’s take a few minutes to unpack why, and help you plot a course forward for your organization’s use of badging.
The use of digital badging in training is certainly not new. The concept of Open Badges dates back to 2010, when workers at the Mozilla and MacArthur Foundations defined the specification for verifiable and shareable credentials.
The use of badging is not yet commonplace for education organizations. Current TSIA Education Services Benchmark Survey data shows that only 38% of survey participants have a badging program. Before making future investments in digital badging, we must evaluate goals and corresponding considerations.
For a more concrete example on the impact of badging, let’s look at a case study with IBM.
Recently, I had the pleasure to conduct an interview with IBM’s Global Training & Skills Unit executives to discuss the success of their badging program. Since the launch of its badging program in 2015, IBM has experienced double- or triple-digit growth in several KPIs associated with learner engagement, as shown below.
Badging and certification are not mutually exclusive. Badging is a delivery mechanism for achievements. Certification is one type of achievement that may be represented by a badge. As a result, not all badges are created equal and, depending on your organization’s goals, different levels of investment and positioning will be necessary.
On one hand, badges can be used primarily as part of a gamification strategy: the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g., point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to encourage engagement with a product or service. Coupled with a points system and leaderboards, badging can make learning more enjoyable and drive content consumption.
This can be successful, even if the badges are not visible or meaningful outside of the immediate community. So they could be implemented with limited budget by leveraging built-in badging capabilities with online community solutions.
We can look to the video game industry for spectacular examples. Every September, my son’s favorite gaming franchise releases a new season of content, awarding special badges for those that complete challenges within the first week of release. During this period, he doesn’t emerge from his bedroom for days.
At the other end of the spectrum, education organizations can capitalize on the market value of verifiable and validated digital credentials that enterprise-grade (and more expensive) badging platforms can provide.
This is on the cusp of becoming a standard practice for TSIA Education Services members, as current benchmark survey data shows that 50% of survey participants that have a certification program also have a badging program.
These types of badges are valuable to the earner, as they provide proof of competency for professional development within their current company or with prospective employers. In addition, these badges are trackable. This allows issuers to see where and with whom they are shared and better gauge market interest in their products and services. Digital representations of certifications would fall into this category.
Since the inception of badges, there have been two major challenges:
Make sure you are clear on your objectives to your internal team and your customers, and distinguish different types of badges.
A few years ago, I built out a new set of credentials for Microsoft developers. Our program offered exam-level credit for a submitted and graded application. To showcase this accomplishment, my team was designing badges that would initially show up on an online developer portal.
As I was testing the appearance of those badges on the platform, I myself received a badge—not for any worthwhile activity that I completed but, instead, as a “Happy 4th of July” gift. How could a certification-worthy badge like my department’s be taken seriously in an online environment where it resided side-by-side with trivial badges?
It became clear to me then that I needed to make sure that there is a clear separation between “lightweight” badges that are used for pure gamification (e.g., those awarded for logging into a community) and robust, meaningful badges that indicate competency in your products and services.
This point is further punctuated when you consider that the costs of developing and maintaining an enterprise-grade badging program are not cheap. You need a marketing budget to design your badges and run brand awareness campaigns, pay the infrastructure and per-badge expenses, and dedicate program management and operations labor to build and maintain them.
To justify these expenses, you have to make sure that issued badges maintain value.
When you have distinguished your meaningful, competency-driven digital badges, you must consider how to distinguish them from one another, as you may have multiple products and competency levels. IBM’s approach was to focus design on six unique emblems for badges, spanning from knowledge- through expert-level certification, with each color-coded for easy identification.
As the well-known saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Design your badges to convey their value without clutter. Let’s examine one of IBM’s specific Knowledge badges to see how they deal with this limited footprint.
We find that the badge has the attractive appearance of a button and includes certain key features. Take this example below:
Even if you are just starting out with a badging program, you should future-proof your investment by setting the appropriate levels for earning the badges to ensure that they hold value in the future.
Let’s imagine that your well-designed badges are a big success. Now, to meet customer demand, you need to build out more to represent competency in your expanding portfolio of products and features. At some point, in a sea of badges, the perceived value of each may diminish.
This is exactly the scenario that IBM is mitigating. From the beginning, IBM has held to the tenet of only awarding badges for resumé-worthy activities. Over the past seven years, their badging program has become so popular across all of their products and services that they are now issuing almost 2,400 unique badges. To stick to their original goal and prevent the dilution of value, there is an effort now underway to move badges from the course level to the skill level.
In fact, IBM sees the opportunity to raise the value of badges in the job market to pivot from a text resumé to one that is based on role-based badges. They even have pilot programs underway to leverage badges for recruiting, hiring, and career development at IBM. Switching to a wide-angle lens, IBM envisions future work with other IT credential providers on joint industry-wide credentials.
Although badging for customer learning is not yet common practice in the tech industry, it can increase customer consumption, satisfaction, and spend.
All this being said, if we pull back and view badging as a tool like a paintbrush, there are bound to be many successful styles of recognizing and rewarding learners through badges. Let’s keep the dialogue going.
At TSIA, we use our decades of experience in the technology industry and our wealth of data-driven research to help our members accomplish their business outcomes faster.
Our Education Services research practice offers members deep operational benchmarking, proven best practices, exclusive resources, and expert advisory. We help them address their top business challenges, including: driving learning content consumption, finding the most effective KPIs, and defining an Education Services strategy and business model.
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October 27, 2022
Lawrence Kaye is the director of education services research for TSIA. He has 20+ years of experience solving technical enablement challenges and leading training and certification lines of business. Lawrence is a regular contributor to the TSIA blog on the topics of training subscriptions, content development/curation, emerging learning technologies, and certification.
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The Technology & Services Industry Association (TSIA) is dedicated to helping technology and services organizations large and small grow and advance in the technology industry. Find out how you can achieve success, too. Call us at (858) 674-5491 or we can call you.