A Certificate Program is simply a series of courses offering in-depth study for anyone looking to get up-to-date skills needed to excel in a chosen field, or transition to a new career.

Over the years, certification programs have grown substantially in the United States, especially due to the rise and expansion in the general population. Sometime ago, word of mouth in a location or region was enough to validate an individual’s skills and expertise but that practice has become insufficient in today’s global economy.

Owing to professionals scattered across the country and the globe, it tends to take a more strategic approach to validate skills. Certification thereby represents one generally acceptable way to do that as they help prove an individual’s credibility to the market.

While certification programs fall under the training umbrella, there are some relatively distinct differences between certification programs and typical training programs.

Certification programs more or less include an assessment of knowledge, skills and competencies. Although training programs tend to include this type of evaluation, it is certainly not a requirement.

In addition, certification programs results in the bestowment of a credential which shows that the holder has met a set standard in terms of possession of, and ability to demonstrate competencies. But training programs do not always include this type of signifier.

Have it in mind that some certification programs do not require training at all, providing individuals with the option to forgo training and skip straight to the assessment in order to achieve certification.

Developing a certification program requires time, money and a lot of patience. Even still, initial development times are dwarfed by editing and launching requirements, even before accounting for marketing. Note that without a robust marketing engine that includes incentive for certification, you are definitely setting yourself up for failure.

According to experts, it is quite possible to expunge anywhere from $250,000 to several million dollars over a two to three – year period when developing a certification program. When accounting for the launch and marketing of the program, typical costs moves toward the higher end of this range.

Whether you plan to create the certification program yourself or work with a third – party vendor, the same basic steps go into the development of a quality certification program.

The very first requirement is to complete a due diligence process and define the program’s objectives. Who is your target audience? What issues within the industry is this program trying to fix? Do you plan on launching locally, regionally or pushing for a more global engagement? These are just some of the questions to be addressed in the due diligence process.

Also note that the due diligence period is the time when you will have to define the need and ability to support a certification program. Don’t forget the fact that certification programs are not always the right response to a training need or pain within a given industry.

Steps for Building a Credible Certification Program in the United States

Certification development is a massive goal and one that may (or may not) be essential to your organization’s focus. Therefore, before venturing into the certification pool feet-first without a life jacket, follow these steps analyzed below:

  1. Understand Your Why

After you’ve done your due diligence and determined the need to develop a certification program, consider these questions before making any tangible move: Have your prospective clients already achieved an advanced educational degree or employment – level training required to accomplish the requirements of their professional position? Why is certification necessary? Will it lead to employment advancement or increased compensation? Or, is it a “nice to have” but not a “must – have” add – on?

  1. Check For Competing Certification Programs

In addition, also research and consider if there are existing professional certification programs already in place that will compete for your members’ attention, investment, or involvement. Survey the landscape as part of your due diligence.

  1. Search For Successful Models

Carefully identify certification programs that you and your membership admire and study why they are so successful or widely adopted. Also learn everything you can about the differences between certification, credentialing, accreditation, and professional registration. Take your time to understand the features that make some programs so respected – and evaluate whether those are needed by your membership.

  1. Select a Product

Your next steps will be determining what product or service you will design your certification around. Note that it would really not be wise if you just try and build a certification program covering all the products in your catalogue. It may make more sense to select one or two products as part of a new product introduction, while defining alternate ways to support and share knowledge on legacy products.

  1. Determining Product Features

Even though this may seem obvious, it is still a very crucial aspect of the certification program development process. Product features are simply “what” and “how” a product operates. Product benefits are the “why” or “when.” Nonetheless, a more technical certification will focus solely on product features, while a program geared for the sales group will also include the product benefits.

  1. Develop a Curriculum

Do not forget that even the best trainers do not always make good instructional designers. Training is like an art whereas instructional design is a science. Designers are always expected to have expertise in adult learning theory and are often certified themselves. Curriculum development more or less involves defining the learning objectives, creating content storyboards, sifting through a wealth of information to define content in just the right way, and creating student takeaways. Have it in mind that this is also one of the greatest hidden costs when creating a certification program. Experience tells us every one hour of training curriculum results from 40 hours of design and development work.

  1. Get Buy-In and Do the Math

This mostly starts with the member survey, but it should also incorporate affiliated organizations and industry employers. Is certification desired by allied groups in your marketplace? Will they recognize the certification as a value – added professional achievement? Also try to understand the obvious costs and the hidden costs of developing a certification program. Not just the ongoing financial investment, but the required investment of staff and volunteer time to figure out the logistics and track certifications.

Will you be able to invest the resources over the next 3 – 5 years until the program gains traction and becomes financially self – sufficient? Your certification plan is expected to be a 5 – year comprehensive undertaking which would eat deep into your budget, time, and volunteer resources. For a small association, experts envisage a conservative estimates ranging from $150,000 – $250,000 and five years of solid focus to create a defensible, sustainable certification initiative – from concept to design and testing to launch.

  1. Develop A Business Plan

Have it in mind every new initiative is expected to come from new revenue. What are the sources of seed funding to lay the groundwork for certification? Who is your strategic industry, government, or educational partners? If you are serious about certification, it is crucial you build the team, the budget, and the accountability in such a way that it does not drain or damage your core focus as an organization.

  1. Create a Timeline

You have to understand that creating a certification program with no launch date in mind or on a fast – track is very much not advisable. The most ideal approach is to develop manageable phases with incremental goals that are achievable. Establish a realistic program that suits the human and financial resources available. If you want to start certification in two years’ time, for instance, do the heavy lifting now, in the beginning.

Also recruit a wide range of volunteers – your certification “believers” – who are eager to see it happen. If you have been “talking about this for years,” it is advisable you create and assign a task force to (a) get serious and execute the strategy or (b) stop making promises you don’t have the capacity to carry out.

At this point, the process then takes an even more daunting turn with creating a test bank of questions to support the curriculum. It is very important that no test question be asked that is not taught in the course content and likewise no course content is included that does not tie directly to a learning objective. Analyzing and understanding the finer points of writing quality test questions (such as avoiding true/false questions and rarely using “all of the above” as potential answer) is perhaps better left up to the experts such as psychometricians.

  1. Test all of the Material and Program Launch

Note that working with a strong bank of beta testers will help facilitate this process. It is impossible to truly perform quality control on your own work, so it is also impossible to develop a certification program in a vacuum. Do not forget that timing is everything when it comes to implementing your program. Experts believe that it is best to launch a certification program within 10 to 14 days of a product launch. Therefore, pre – planning for the certification program is mission critical.


Depending on the industry, many organizations are rolling out certification programs designed to differentiate and distinguish members who desire a higher level of professional achievement or an endorsement for a proven level of expertise. However, do not forget that the program is only as effective as its regular maintenance. In the security industry, technology changes fast as do product features and software builds. It is essential that your certification program keeps pace with industry and product changes by releasing regular updates.