HRD's pocket guide to... microcredentials

The HRD’s pocket guide series offers an explanation of areas outside day-to-day HR that business-savvy HRDs need to have a handle on

Why do I need to know about it?

As many jobs become increasingly digitalised, technology changes at pace, and people remain in the workforce longer it will become necessary to upskill and reskill more often. Traditional courses from universities and professional bodies will struggle to keep pace and stay relevant. Workers will need to have an attitude of lifelong learning if they don’t wish to be replaced by a robot.

“Microcredentials are just what the term connotates – shorter-form educational or professional credential programmes that are smaller than traditional degrees,” explains Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy, and executive professor of educational policy at Northeastern University in the US.

In keeping with the digital landscape, microcredentials are often expressed digitally (as opposed to say a paper certificate).

“Microcredentials are a way to verify and validate an achievement or competency. They are typically shorter in length than a more traditional certification and can be expressed using digital badges. Badges are a digital representation of information that contain rich metadata about the achievement,” says David Leaser, senior program executive, innovation and growth initiatives at IBM.

What do I need to know about it?

Tech firms are as usual leading the way in this area. IBM runs a digital badges microcredential training and accreditation scheme for both employees and the public.

According to Dirk Ifenthaler, chair of learning, design and technology at the University of Mannheim, there are two major opportunities for businesses when it comes to using microcredentials: “[finding] the right person for a specific job based on a competence profile – earned microcredentials” and “independently certify[ing] their employees’ capabilities”.

While organisations have long sent their employees on courses for their CPD these are costly and can take years in some cases. Training for microcredentials is much quicker, and therefore more efficient and a potential faster return on investment.

“Microcredentials almost universally have a professional and skills-oriented focus,” says Gallagher. “Demand is rising because of the faster-paced and online nature of the job market and professional development today, a desire for more career-oriented higher education, a growing supply of programmes, and employers’ attempts to bridge the skills gap and move beyond a reliance on academic degrees in hiring.”

Where can HR add value?

Microcredentials’ social mobility potential is huge. Once they become more established they could be used to help source talent (particularly youth talent) from non-university backgrounds.

It will be up to HR to decide whether to accept microcredentials, or require them as part of job criteria. Ifenthaler points out that advertising positions based on the competences expected may require building partnerships with credentialling organisations.

Having a specific set of qualifications in a competitive job market could help candidates stand out and make it easier for HR to find the right people.

Similarly, if HR analyses the data in the microcredentials of its own workforce that can feed into strategic workforce planning. “HR can add value by mining the data in digital credentials to understand dearths, gaps and opportunities. Badges create heat maps that can show where an organisation has talent and where it is lacking,” says Leaser.

IBM has seen the business benefits of its microcredentials firsthand. An internal survey found that 76% thought digital badges motivate employees and customers to develop current skills, 72% said they recognise employees for achievement, 48% believe badges help them identify verified talent, and 39% said it increases engagement.

By widening the talent pool to candidates with non-traditional education diversity also improves.

“By focusing on skills over degrees and geography IBM wants to shift mindsets and make tech more diverse and inclusive. Badges provide an alternative credential and a way to democratise the workforce,” Leaser adds.

Anything else?

Microcredentials are expanding quickly. “While we are at least five years in to the development of a microcredential market it is still very early – new offerings, standards, and experiments from educational institutions and third-party credentialling providers are arriving each week,” says Gallagher.

This piece appeared in the February 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk