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Social Media “Certifications”

March 6, 2009

Recently, within the last few months or so, I’ve noticed a pretty big increase in the number of sites offering social media certifications. In some cases, these “certifications” are offered after just four hours of webinar attendance. In other cases, it’s over the course of virtual sessions spread over several months.  I’m not sure I like this trend.  So what’s wrong with this? Why not offer some certifications in social media?

Before answering that, let me be clear about a couple of things – I do think there is a massive market for social media workshops and education. In fact, Barry Libert and I are actually putting a workshop model together as we speak.  So… education, training, awareness — sure and the more, the merrier. What I’m struggling with is the “certified” part.

I have two fundamental questions: “certified by whom?” and “certified in what exactly?” “Certified by whom?” is an important question because it’s what gives the certification a significant part of it’s value and validity. As I look at some of these organizations offering certifications though, I’m not seeing any names I recognize or the kinds of resumes and experiences that would make me think “there’s someone who’s done enough of this to know what works…”   It’s possible I just don’t know some of these folks – I’m certainly not under any illusions about my own network or connections in the social media world, but still, I would expect to recognize a few names or stories.  Or at least find the experience presented to be compelling.

Then there is the question of “certified in what?” Certification implies the presence of accepted best practices or known and accepted skills, competencies, expertise. In my opinion, we are nowhere near this in the social media space – not even close.

The second issue is scope and subject matter. What could a social media certification possibly cover? Is the certification tactical and technical? Certified in “wiki technology and related business applications?” “Certified in social networking?” Or maybe “social bookmarking and tagging?”

Or is it more business process focused? Maybe “certified in using social media for marketing?” “Or innovation?” Or maybe it’s something like “on-boarding and retaining employees through social networking.”

Or maybe it’s more strategic and visionary, in recognition of the overall paradigm shifts in culture and business. Like “capturing emergent knowledge and best practices through prediction markets, wikis, and discussions.” Or “transforming organizational culture by flattening hierarchies and empowering networks.” Or maybe something simpler: a certification in “how to run your company like a community.”

I guess my point is that this is a hopelessly broad and deep field – a classic “boiling the ocean” problem. Any certification would have to be in something specific like “wikis,” “blogs,” or “social networking” but even with this narrow focus, I’m not sure that a certification is worth any more than the paper it’s printed on. I’ve been blogging for many years, and I think I’m doing a lot of things right, but it took me that many years to get it right. I’m still not sure I’m using LinkedIn to best advantage, and I didn’t really “get” Twitter until I had a few hundred followers. I’ve still actively evolving in my use of SlideShare, Delicious and FriendFeed.  You can’t really “know” this stuff until you use it – a lot.

Then there is the whole issue of technology change.  Next week, Facebook is changing the way it displays business accounts and is introducing Twitter-like functionality.  How is this going to affect brands on Facebook?  We’re in a massive state of flux right now where the only constant is change.

What I’m saying is that a) you don’t really understand the value of these tools and therefore their potential until you use them for awhile and b) you need be immersed in it to have any hope of keeping up with the changes. Book-learning or “expert-led” certification models may give you a jump start in understanding how to derive value from these technologies, but they do nothing to give you the necessary gut-level understanding necessary to be successful, nor can they impart an attitude of “openness” that successful social media adoption requires.  A certification also does little to help apply these tools, philosophies, and models to your specific industry, business, culture, and problem space.

We’re at the beginning of this transition. Even the folks on the “bleeding edge” are still figuring it out. In my opinion, the real experts are the ones who recognize that we currently know about 10x less than what we’re going to learn in the coming years. The real experts are the ones who are out there doing it, experiencing it, staying open to new ideas and emerging models. They are the ones networking and sharing. They are not the ones who claim to know enough to certify anyone or who naively think things are stable enough for that certification to mean anything.

So what do you think?  Can any social media certification be legit at this point in the game or ever?  I say no.  Instead, I would urge the new kids on the block to join some communities, join LinkedIn and Facebook, start a blog, join Twitter, use Delicious, put a deck up on SlideShare, create a wiki on Wetpaint. Read some White Papers, listen to some podcasts, read some blogs. Attend a workshop or two and then stay in touch with with your workshop leaders via social networks, Twitter, and blogs. I think social media concepts and technologies are moving too fast to be locked up in a “certification” mode.

Moreover, I would argue that at a deeper philosophical level, certification models are oppositional to the culture of openness and innovation that lies at the heart of Web 2.0.  They harken back to a time when those “in the know” could annoint new experts.  Web 2.0 is about emergent expertise, not annointed expertise.  To my way of thinking, certifying social media experts is a bit like lying to ace an Ethics exam.

For a great related post, I’d suggest reading Five Questions to Ask a Social Media Expert by Jim Storer, someone I do think is a real expert in the space.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2009 9:05 pm

    Can one be certified in talking on the phone? Sending email? Posting comments on a blog or adding content to a social network? Of course not. So how can receive certification for communicating or information sharing?

    Social media represents a new tool set for accomplishing these two everyday exchanges between and among people. Besides the obvious –to make a buck— it seems pretty ridiculous to think there is a “skill set” that can be certifiable. Sure, there are folks who know this stuff in and out and use these tools to advance their thoughts, ideas, relationships, and professions. But certification w/o an industry structure or standards? SoMe Certified? SoWhat!?

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      March 8, 2009 7:41 pm

      Yeah, agreed. I sort of took this a bit further in my response to Eric. It seems to me that a lot of this more than skills. It’s really a much more fundamental shift in valuing the opinions of others, including those who are “below” you in the historical organizational food chain. The way John Chambers is running Cisco or the way Brad Anderson is running Best Buy are examples of why this is more than a question of learning how to use a wiki.

      I also wonder how “social media” it is to offer a “certification” in the first place. Certifications are about experts sharing known expertise. Social media is about recognizing that we’re all experts in something and providing environments where people can share this expertise with each other. It’s also explicitly recognizes that expertise and knowledge are emergent and fluid. Certifications assume expertise is known and relatively static (otherwise, there is no point in spending money to get certified right?). They seem like concepts that, if not polar opposites, are a minimum not well-aligned.

      I think your last line sums the whole question up best: “SoMe Certified? SoWhat!?”

  2. March 7, 2009 11:28 am

    I agree that certification is unnecessary at this time. Perhaps some day when the “technology” and “techniques” mature some people might want a way to validate their competence and might want a certification in order to convince others that they have some proficiency. I do not ever see the need to use certification as a pre-requisite to “practice.”

    • dwilkinsnh permalink*
      March 8, 2009 7:30 pm

      I like your last line; should have said it more strongly in my original post. There should never be a need to be social media certified before you practice. As Dan noted, these are core competencies and not dissimilar to other kinds of communication and sharing.

      Part of me even wonders if success as a community manager or social media “guru” is more nature than nurture. It seems to me that some of the core competencies required are more innate than learned: willingness to share, to listen, to facilitate and shepherd, to praise and validate. While the techniques involved in these behaviors can be learned, the inclinations and disposition to act this way may lie more in the realm of innate talents or disposition. I guess what I’m saying is that most Type A folks aren’t going to be great community managers, regardless of whether they have a certification that says they are… ; )

  3. daretoshare permalink
    April 9, 2009 2:47 pm

    I believe we need to understand the “context” of social learning to determine the required traits and competencies. Let’s look at two examples:

    1. Social learning to solve ambiguous problems
    2. Social learning to solve established problems

    The traits and competencies you need to “succeed” as a social learning connector, facilitator and learner depends on the context and purpose of the network.

    Perhaps to learn through networking in order to solve ambiguous problems relies more heavily on traits rather than on learned competencies and skills.

    I do not have the answers – but think we want to be careful not to over generalize. I believe with some time and research we will become smarter about knowing the key traits and competencies for various social learning contexts.


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