How to Start a New Certification

By Ron Hanchar, MBA, President and CEO, Hanchar Consulting Services

Disclaimer: The opinions and interpretations made by the author of this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE) or any of its programs.

Setting up a new high-quality certification program takes time, resources and a considerable amount of planning. This article is based on a condensed version of the ICE webinar titled “How to Start a New Certification” presented on July 26, 2018. This article will provide a roadmap of recommended steps organizations may wish to consider during strategic planning of a new certification program.

Becoming Familiar with the Terminology

Organizational leaders who plan to start a new certification program or any sort of high-stakes assessment need to have a basic understanding of a few key terms related to the industry. Familiarity with these terms is especially important when conducting initial research and planning. Fully understanding these terms may affect your overall decision regarding what is best for your organization. These terms, Certification, Certificate, Licensure and Accreditation, are described as follows:

A Certification Program is a comprehensive assessment of an individual's knowledge, skills/experience, and abilities based on a body of knowledge pertaining to a profession or occupation. This is different from a Certificate Program which emphasizes learning events and is based on coursework completion. A Licensure Program is similar to a certification program in that it may also be a comprehensive assessment of an individual's knowledge, skills, and abilities based on a body of knowledge pertaining to a profession or occupation. However, it is different in that it is usually regulated and may be required in order to practice in a profession. 

Finally, Accreditation is a neutral third party’s formal declaration that the certification program is developed, maintained, and administered in a way that meets relevant norms or standards. Organizations developing certification programs with the long-term goal of becoming third-party NCCA or ISO 17024 accredited are smart to look at compliance with standards for certification throughout the entire process. 


How to Start a New Certification Program: A 3-Phased Approach 

The “How to Start a New Certification Program” webinar breaks the process into 3 phases: 1.) Planning, 2.) Development and Implementation and 3.) Follow-Up.


Phase 1: Planning

The “Planning” Phase should be conducted to gather information and documentation to help you objectively determine whether or not starting a new certification program is right for your organization. 


Although there may be a number of different ways of planning for this event, the author suggests that you consider conducting a Needs Assessment and a Business Case Scenario. These two activities will provide you with documentation to back up your final decision.

A Needs Assessment helps you identify where you are now and where you want to be in the future. It’s a process to help you determine your priorities, make organizational improvements, or allocate resources. 

The first decision your organization will need to make regarding your needs assessment should be to determine who will conduct it. If you can afford it, I suggest you consider going through one of many reputable and experienced research organizations that understand certification and can provide you with objective methods of extracting both qualitative and quantitative information.

A needs assessment is described as a four-step process: 1.) Conducting a Gap Analysis, 2.) Gathering Data, 3.) Analyzing the Data, and 4.) Preparing a Final Report.[1]


Conducting a gap analysis should help you determine where your organization is now as compared to where it wants to be in the future. It should help you answer the question “What is?” Review of your organization’s current Mission Statement can provide a baseline or reality check during this stage of the process.

Gathering data can be accomplished through various modes (surveys, interviews, group assessments, etc.). Data collection is the process of gathering and measuring information on targeted variables in an established systematic fashion, which then enables one to answer relevant questions and evaluate outcomes. The goal for all data collection should be to capture quality evidence that allows analysis leading to convincing and credible answers to objective questions previously posed.

Analyzing the data can be conducted through various internal and external strategic tools. SWOT and PESTILE analyses are options your organization might consider using. Both help you determine your strategic fit within the market. Analyzing the data in this manner can help paint a more strategic picture of your needs (as well as your potential limitations) regarding your organization’s ability to starting a new certification program. 

Preparing a Final Report should be based on the completion of the three previous needs assessment steps (conducting a “gap” analysis, gathering and analyzing data). The final report should provide enough information in order to be able to have a strategic conversation within your organization about starting a new certification.

Once you have completed your needs assessment, a Business Case Scenario should help you establish your level of commitment, secure funding, and make a final decision. 

A typical Business Case Scenario for a new certification program development should include the following:

  • Project Description: Describes the certification and provides justification for proceeding beyond the Needs Assessment
  • Purpose of Business Case: Conveys the purpose of the business case for certification and what the investment is expected to do.
  • General Investment Information: Identifies individuals/stakeholders that have a vested interest and may lead the project should certification program development be approved.
  • High-Level Business Impact: Outlines what business functions/processes of the organization may be impacted at a high-level.
  • Alternatives and Analysis: Identifies options and alternatives that might be considered in developing a new certification. One option should be keeping things “as-is” for comparative purposes.
  • Preferred Solution
    • Financial Considerations: Identifies potential short and long-term funding sources and resources. Identifies potential program expenses (start up and on-going) for the preferred solution. Determines ROI, conduct cost benefit and break-even analysis.
    • Preliminary Acquisition Strategy/Plan: Identifies acquisition sources for the preferred solution that include all project supplies, services, and commercial items.
    • Preliminary Work Breakdown Structure (WBS): Defines the preferred solution’s project scope and work to be accomplished. These are displayed in a way that relates work elements to each other and to the project’s goals.


Phase 2: Development and Implementation

Assuming you have made the decision to move forward in the development of a new certification program, the next phase is its Development and Implementation. As you contemplate the processes you will use, I suggest that your primary objective should be to develop and implement a psychometrically sound and legally defensible program. Construction of a Project Time Schedule is a first step to consider regarding the development and implementation of your program. You may wish to consider using work you may have already completed on your WBS as the basis of your Project Time Schedule. There are many available software tools that can help you manage any and all aspects of your certification project such as MSProject© and Excel©

In general, steps involved in development and implementation of a psychometrically sound and legally defensible certification program include:

  • Conducting a Job Task Analysis (JTA): The validity argument in support of any certification program rests in large part on demonstrating that the exam content is job related. The JTA determines what tasks, knowledge, or skills are required to perform the job at a defined experience level, thus defining the domain of testable content. The JTA is also useful in establishing eligibility criteria.
  • Developing a Content Outline/Exam Blueprint: Results of the JTA form the basis of the exam design as represented by an outline or blueprint. The JTA also informs the number of items required for each domain and/or objective.
  • Item Development/Review: Identifying, selecting and training Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to write and review items, which will be used in the certification exam.
  • Constructing the Exam: Populating each exam form with items written by SMEs according to the exam blueprint.
  • Delivering the Exam: Format used for delivery (paper & pencil, internet or computer-based, etc.). Data about item performance may be collected through a pilot study or beta exam release to candidates meeting eligibility criteria.
  • Scoring: Establishing the exam passing score based on a cut score study. Sending out results to those who previously sat for the exam and re-releasing the exam with the cut score.

Exam development is a complicated and difficult process. If your organization does not have psychometric and test development staff, it is recommended that you hire such staff or contract for their services through a reputable vendor.


Phase 3: Follow Up

Exam Maintenance: Once your program has been released with the passing standard determined and test form(s) finalized, it is important to periodically review candidate data, item and exam performances, administrative procedures, etc., on a regular basis to ensure your exam remains psychometrically sound and legally defensible.

Quality Management: Development of a Quality Manual is recommended to ensure compliance with all policies and procedures related to certification.

Certification Maintenance: Certification Maintenance/Recertification is an important part of the certification process. As you develop your Maintenance program, there are a few things you need to consider up front:

  • Determine the purpose and rationale of recertification and define continued competence.
  • Determine avenues certificants can use to successfully meet re-certification requirements.
  • Establish re-certification criteria.
  • Establish a re-certification period and rationale behind its duration.
  • Establish administrative procedures for recertification (submission and review).
  • Establish a verification of proof process (i.e., auditing process). 

Starting a new certification program is a lengthy and complicated process, especially if it is your organization’s first time. There is no set formula to be followed, as each organization’s needs and desires are different. 

The three-phase process described in this article (Planning, Development and Implementation, and Follow Up), is an option for you to consider. This along with understanding third-party certification accreditation standards such as NCCA or ISO 17024 will help your organization offer a quality certification that is psychometrically sound and legally defensible. 


[1] Morrison, Ross and Kempt 

Related Learning: On-Demand Webinar

WEB18 How to Start a New Certification Program

This on-demand webinar provides a roadmap regarding recommended steps necessary to start up a new program that is psychometrically sound and legally defensible. It addresses some of the most common trials and tribulations organizations may face throughout the planning, implementation and maintenance stages and provide suggestions/recommendations on how they might be addressed. 

Download the on-demand webinar today.

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