Emerging technologies and new ways of doing business mean the certification of IT professionals is more important than ever. Yet unless certifications are developed and standardised so they reflect real-world experience, they will fail to help boost professionalism within the IT sector. Steve Philp, Marketing Director of The Open Group’s ITAC and ITSC certification programmes, addresses some the top issues facing IT certification today.

Steve PhilpThe European Commission (EC) recently warned of a potential 350,000-plus shortfall in IT practitioners in the region by 2015 and criticised the UK for failing to adequately promote professionalism in the industry. According to EC principal administrator André Richier, although Europe has approximately four million IT practitioners, 50 per cent are not IT degree qualified.

While there’s a case to be had for ensuring IT practitioners have an appropriate education, more important is ensuring IT practitioners in the workplace are continually improving and developing their skills and capabilities - both as technical experts and as project managers.

Developments in technology, such as cloud computing, are having a profound impact on the day-to-day lives of IT professionals, forcing them to speak the language of business and ensure IT is closely linked to business objectives. Given such challenges it is not surprising certification is being seen as more important than ever in the IT world.

The need for standards

Bearing in mind there are essentially three main stakeholder groups concerned when it comes to IT certification, what is the ultimate goal of certification? For businesses, certification ensures that individuals meet the hiring standards they require. Beyond possessing a standard base of knowledge proven by passing an exam, hiring managers are increasingly showing preference for talent whose actual skills and experience match globally accepted standards.

For the individual, certification is about acquiring the skills necessary to be an attractive employee and prove it. For vendors, certification is about ensuring that their solution can be easily implemented and used by organisations to bring maximum benefit.

Standards for certification need to be set not just by one technology vendor but also by the organisations that use technology to meet their business and infrastructure goals as well as independent third parties. Why?

As business operations become more geographically dispersed, organisations across the world are faced with numerous IT challenges as they evolve to remain competitive, particularly in coming out of the current economic downturn. These pressures are, in turn, placed on IT professionals, forcing them to evolve their skills in order to remain competitive in the job market.

This is why standards for certification are so important. Certifications (and hence the training) need to be relevant not just for the technology vendor but most importantly to the organisations that are hiring and the IT professionals themselves. The skills and experience IT professionals gain throughout their careers should be transferable across organisations and not just limited to one particular technology, product or skill set.

In addition, one of the things we have learnt through interactions with our members is that, although technical skills are important, simply studying a book of technical specifications is not enough in the modern world.

IT professionals must not only be able to show their ‘book smarts’, but they also need to show that they have practical experience implementing those smarts ‘on the street’. Incidentally, this is also why a vendor neutral approach to certification is important; organisations and individuals need objectivity and a wider world view to effectively deliver a service to their stakeholders.

IT street smarts over book smarts

It’s crucial that IT certification programmes focus on demonstrating competence in actual engagements. Simply taking tests after studying a book does not fully prepare executives for the business challenges they’re expected to address through IT.

In addition to real world experience, enterprise architects and IT specialists will of course have mastered skills specific to their disciplines, but to be successful they also need to master skills borrowed from other disciplines, and they need skills that allow them to work productively in a particular employer and client context. These so-called soft skills, including communication, listening, leadership and teamwork, cannot be learned in a book nor measured in an exam.

The three most relevant disciplines with which IT architects and IT specialists share skills are project and programme management, business strategy and consulting. These skills are important when you consider the pace of change within the business world and the need for IT investments to meet specific business goals.

After all, without these additional skills, technical know-how alone will not unlock the full potential of an organisation’s IT infrastructure. To draw an analogy, knowing how to build a bike (technical skills) does not mean that you can ride it, or indeed know if it is a cross-country bike or a road racer (business skills).

Certification and the cloud

If we look at the nascent cloud category, this exemplifies many of the points made above. It is important that organisations hire IT professionals with the necessary qualifications and skills if businesses are to reap the cost saving and efficiency benefits cloud adoption promises. The big challenge with cloud right now, of course, is that the industry is still in the early stages of developing standards that address the technical as well as the business requirements for being successful in this environment.

CIOs want to understand what the move to cloud computing could mean to them and what it’s going to do for them. Business leaders want to understand the business benefits and key organisational requirements for getting started. IT architects need to have the technical know-how to make cloud computing a reality. However, these drivers cannot exist in isolation of each other.

This means collaborating across the entire ecosystem and applying training street-smarts to ensure that cloud solutions are fit for purpose and that the IT professionals that have been trained in a manner that will allow them to deliver results. This is all the more important when you consider that what constitutes a cloud service is up for debate; it could be infrastructure or software as a service, or it could be point-of-service with advertising, or be extra processing power or secure environments for scaling up or testing.

As enterprise cloud adoption matures, the standards and best practices being charted right now by industry consortia and working groups will be central to the effectiveness of cloud-focused certification programmes.

Towards a more professional approach to IT

Certification can play a key role in improving the professionalism of the IT industry; but to have any real impact there must be standards that are relevant and useful to all the key stakeholders: IT professional, employers and technology vendors. What’s more, if certification programmes are to have any real role in advancing professionalism within the IT industry, they must show that IT professionals have real-life experience.

Developments in technology such as cloud computing are forcing IT departments to speak the language of business and align their activities with an organisation’s key objectives. Those that don’t have the necessary skills and experience will struggle to keep up and risk undermining professionalism of the industry.

At a time when IT has such an important role to play in driving efficiency and improving productivity no one can afford to underestimate the value of IT certifications that are based on globally accepted standards and that prefer street smarts beyond just book smarts.