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Q: What does Google do related to training, education, membership or certification?

There’s an organization called Cloud Learning Services which is focused on product training. The audience is all learning domains: googlers, partners, customers, and the public. This is focused on the Google Cloud platform, as well as the G Suite productivity tools.

The Enterprise Focused Training Organization has a primary objective of teaching trainees to be a leader for the overall cloud business. Including support for customers in their "cloud transformation journey", which is required for a customer to adapt to any job.

Q: How would you define digital badges, or digital credentials and what are some examples that you use them for?

I use the term credential as the umbrella within the credentialing space as there’s credentials of various kinds - we started our journey with Accredible because of the support for high-stakes professional certification.

One of the credential types is a certification: a job role based certification that positions Google Cloud in relation to the tech market. This allows for a cohort of qualified professionals on the Google Cloud platform - similar to what you can see with Microsoft, or AWS with their credentials. The credential used is just the digital manifestation of the achievement.

We are focused on certification; so we issue digital certificates which are accompanied with the digital badge. The digital part is important for us because in my career I used to support programs that would fulfil the achievement through a physical certificate. These were put in the mail and then who knows what they did with it - on the wall of their office, or cube, or whatever. 

In the modern world a digital representation of the achievement provides value for the receiver and works as a currency of sorts. The digital credentials open up opportunities for learners in the job market, provide opportunities for new positions or promotions within their organisations, and for the cloud program.

The digital manifestation is not just a verification piece but something you share socially or professionally to help support the value of the program within the certified users networks - something you couldn't have done with a physical certificate.

We use a digital certificate/badging platform for this high stakes scenario but it scales all the way down to low stakes too. It’s very cost efficient to deliver these digitally and operationally they are efficient because they are integrated into existing systems. Using the Accredible API, it’s touchless, very low cost, can be delivered globally (which is something that you couldn’t do with the physical stuff) and is an investment because of the sharing returns. All of this plays into why we use digital badging.

Q: Why did you initially decide to start using digital badges?

When I joined Google, there was a legacy solution for Google Cloud that involved issuing a document via electronic delivery. The electronic certificates - "e-certs" - were issued in real-time on a passing score, via the third party test platform.

I wanted to change 2 things:

1st issue: Take the role of issuing away from the third party test platform - we had no ability to validate that tester with that exam and no ability to apply policy considerations.

2nd issue: The method of conveying the achievement through the e-cert was fraught with fraud. That document was in no way resistant to fraud, unlike the Accredible digital certificate. There was no equivalent to a blockchain verification process and that was a big motive.

One thing that's key about Accredible in comparison, by having the certificate on the platform we gained the ability to revoke - we couldn’t revoke with the previous scenario and this was a concern. There was also the matter of expiration - the previous e-cert had the date of issuance but it didn't represent the idea of when it would expire or if it was expired. Whereas the Accredible credentials offer this functionality as standard.

Q: How common or pervasive are digital badges in your industry now? Are many organizations also using digital badges?

I’m under no illusion that Google is so far ahead of everyone else and in general - all or most of our competitive or peer companies are doing some version of digital badging. How it's done can vary, there could be those that are still using physical fulfilment of printed certificates or thought that PDF certificates were modern - it wasn’t that long ago that these solutions were the status quo. 

I’m sure there is a spectrum but it’s becoming very common. When I do talk to peers in other companies, whether I’m benchmarking or not, everyone was either already engaged or was planning something around digital credentials.

Q: What do you think are the most common issues, misconceptions or pain points around digital badges?

One of the issues I see very commonly in the learning space especially, is the use of the LMS as your everything platform. They want to use a single platform for everything, but this means the addition of ‘bolt-on’ solutions that don’t meet the quality output of a dedicated option.

I don’t think it's an area that LMSs are necessarily leading and some practitioners on the business side might be relying on those. Their concerns are probably either:

1) They may not be aware of the larger opportunities of where the digital credentialing space is going and evolving.

2) Their focus is on getting the LMSs to add these features and if it is added, they may be blissfully unaware of what they are not able to get from that platform.

There are a lot of businesses that don’t have an opportunity to build an ecosystem in the way Google is doing. We can pick our components from a variety of solutions we build or get from partners, and we can do the work to integrate them and provide a cohesive and consistent experience for the user. One concern might be they go to a solution that's not focused on credentialing and instead try to drive that solution into that capability which often results in a lower quality solution.

The alternative is to go to Accredible and push them into a broader and broader solution because they want more than just digital credentials but a larger suite of tools. I can see a lot of customers being unhappy because they are always wanting more from whoever they are working with e.g. more LMS stuff from Accredible or more robust credentialing from an LMS.

The other thing I’d expect to come up is different software for different groups. When individual groups make individual choices, those choices don’t scale and the user experience can be quite bifurcated, where program A and B could be touching the same individuals, but might not have all their credentials in one place.

Q: Do you believe that employers understand the value of digital badges?

I think that employers recognize the challenge they have when it comes to the way they qualify, recruit, and hire talent. I sat in meetings across a variety of industries where the whole subject was: where do they go in the future when it comes to the qualifications and the talent, and how do they deal with hiring in roles that currently require degrees, is that going to persist?

I’ve also sat in rooms where HR leaders talk about the trap: they recognize the limits of those requirements, the usefulness of those requirements, but they don't have the necessary equivalents. If they were to go to something that was a better measure for this candidate’s qualification like a certification from Google, what would that process look like? How would that work? The general sense of these meetings was: do those credentials even exist? Who do we trust? What are the brands? This is something that’s going to emerge over time.

I don't think corporations like Google will compete directly with higher ed in their education offering. I believe our credentials will have a role in the job market that will offer at minimum, the same value as higher ed certifications. But it’ll look different - today when a candidate asserts these are my qualifications and achievements, that process in general is very difficult to verify and in a lot of cases is only done in high level ways.

Digital credentials/badges/certifications are something the job market will come to rely on in the next ten years. Not just because they might be more relevant or pertinent to the jobs but also because they are more accessible to employees.

Q: Do you believe that recipients understand the value of digital badges?

In some cases absolutely, the value is easy for recipients to understand but it can also be unclear. Google for example, can create some artificial demand. A condition for being a recognized Google Partner is that partners demonstrate the necessary skills and abilities within their team and that’s often represented with credentialing. This means the demand to be a qualified partner comes from needing a way to demonstrate your knowledge or capabilities. But it’s interesting, because it’s fair to say it could be seen as a hoop to jump through to get to some end, which isn't what we are looking for in terms of value.

In a different scenario, Global Knowledge did a survey which ranks their credentials according to their value in the job market. Twice in a row, the Google Cloud certified cloud architect has been ranked in that survey as having the highest value in the job market translated to annual salary. I believe - and it’s not just Google - there are other tech companies that offer credentials that have real weight in the job market and translate to very competitive and attractive salaries. There are people now seeking them for that opportunity - not just earning them but maintaining them because that helps solidify their position in the marketplace.

Speaking as a parent now for a second, I know that for myself and some of my peers I’ve had many conversations with people where we’ve talked about: If the goal is to get my kids successfully into their adult lives and be independent, is driving them into a university education the most effective way? Will this be the best investment vs encouraging them to get certified, get into the job market and into their positions? I advocate for my two kids to get their degree but also get their certifications and I’ve seen other parents suggest the same. My daughter has a technical support certification and a nutrition certification.

Planning a Program

Q: What criteria did you use to pick a digital badges vendor?

The criteria included: a need to prevent the obvious fraud that would occur with a digital certificate and a desire for us to work with a solution that wasn’t embedded in any particular delivery platform (LMS etc).

I wanted something that stood apart, because we are a multi-service delivery organization and there’s no one place that delivers all of the learning or credential related activities. We needed it to be independent and therefore my contribution was that architectural perspective, as well as the emphasis on the Accredible APIs. What the business wanted was a low-cost solution that would work globally and could be localized. They weren’t completely sensitive to some of the benefits that were also great: the social marketing opportunity and marketing ROI from that, which were apparent to me. 

Credentials are an emerging space that’s not super mature, so there’s not a lot of things you can consider. There are of course various alternatives, and sometimes the tradeoffs are very stark, but in terms of like-for-like solutions I don’t see that many alternatives out there and that’s a function of immaturity in the market.

Q: Who should be involved when planning for a badging initiative?

Besides the people that own the credentialing programs directly and the marketing program, is the partner programs. You should engage the programs that are downstream of credentialing e.g. programs that subscribe to credentials or if they attach the achievement as a part of their program's requirements. 

Working with partner programs is part of the process and that’s an area I’d probably get new insights if I went to them and said “how can we aid the validation or verification process, what’s not happening there? What would you like to see it become? What should we do in this regard.”

I think another area to talk to is HR and staffing and I'd spend more time with them if I were to do it again. I’d be more engaged with our own internal staffing resources to understand their point of view about it and how we’d translate credentialing into the recruiting and hiring processes. If it doesn’t work there I think that would be a huge gap to have solutions that intend to make you job ready but don’t translate the job process. 

We didn’t really get a lot of traction with the marketing dept at first but we were able to turn the corner because the Accredible platform so clearly speaks to the marketing needs. Once they saw it, it spoke for itself and it worked out really well.

Implementing a Program

Q: What were the hardest parts?

Specific to my situation, this was the first thing I launched at Google as a "noogler" and I knew very little about how to do that. This kind of a solution is legitimately run through a certain gauntlet as Google sets a high bar for privacy conditions, and that was something I wasn't prepared for. Partly because in the past when I launched I had dealt with compliance situations, but doing this with Accredible at Google was very specific to the Google situation.

There was an expectation of my stakeholders that this would be very fast and I came into a situation where I took over this project but didn’t technically start it. There had already been some evaluation of providers, some kicking of the tires of Accredible, and it was unrealistic the expectations for how quickly this could be launched.

Q: What metrics are you tracking post-launch? Were there any new metrics you discovered were useful to track you had not thought of during the planning phase?

Mostly we track what Accredible gives us. I think this gets us the key issue and is interesting because we wouldn’t have had this before when we mailed the certificates. Now we can see:

  • If and where they engage
  • If recipients are making private credentials public
  • Where credentials are driving clicks back into our program
  • How credentials are driving traffic, awareness, interest back into our site and our programs

Accredible helps us to get perspective on the metrics. Because they are new measures for me and this is all new territory for everyone, we don't really know what we should expect. What's the engagement baseline? What’s a good engagement number? Accredible provides very useful visibility of the industry average compared to ours, but there’s another level in identifying what Google's ambition should be. I don’t think we have visibility into that yet or understand how we would move one of these metrics in a certain direction. These are aspects we are still grappling with.

When we initially launched with Accredible for the Google certified program we were measuring in a quantitative way: What is your experience like? How easy did you find it? We also asked: What programs are not offering you what we want? We got really great insights into that and we will come back to that on a more regular basis. What we learned was: Users found it extremely easy to use, generated quantitatively almost NO support requests, and got really good engagement rates.

The one thing that was a little disappointing was what else should we do - what are we not doing that we should do? I think we got great feedback, which turned into our directory but even at that time we were ahead of our users. My view was that for the users we were engaging with, they didn’t already have experience or expectations of credentialing yet and that will change. I was happy to have made their expectations to create something they found easy.

This is so new and you’re having to invent the playbook as you go. This is where I leaned more so on Accredible because you have your own perspective on that and that’s evident in Accredible’s product and roadmap. I’m not totally concerned because I just felt like we were a bit ahead of users and therefore they weren’t the most fruitful source for what we could and should do.

Looking Ahead

Q: How do you think badges and digital credentials will evolve over the next decade?

For one, they are here to stay and will evolve in a couple of ways. There's the concept of them being portable which will continue to evolve with the open badging standards.

There will be changes that are more to do with society, the job market, and the way talent is acquired. These changes will make digital credentials become part of the talent validation process in ways that’s not common today. 

Google has the ambition to make our credentials have real value in the marketplace. This has placed an importance on our ability as the issuer to verify that so and so has earned this credential and is qualified in this job role. Ultimately, the verification process is not really rooted as deeply as I expect it to in the coming decade.

Further Reading

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