Is Yours a PM Certification or a Certificate?

PM Commentary by Stacy Goff, ProjectExperts CEO.
We have noticed a significant recent increase in advertisements for “PM Certifications”, resulting in “Certified Project Managers”, that are really Certificates in a pm-related training. It would seem that some fail to understand the difference.

The increase in “certification” promotions makes sense, in part, because, the competition in the training industry is stiff. And as we frequently note, Billions of $USD spent in various project management-related training has led to little-to-no improvement in organizational project and program performance. Thus, organizations ranging from educational institutions to training companies are adding new certifications in project management. Or are they?

Most of these offerings are certificates, not certifications. And while I believe the offerers to be misguided, rather than intentionally misleading, these misstatements damage us all while they continue. Why? Because Executives funding these programs are expecting PM performance results they are not receiving.

An Early Certificate in PM
In 1985 my company (now named ProjectExperts®) instituted a PM Certificate for learning participants in organizations that engaged key portions of my curriculum. A few Aerospace companies, Insurance companies, and Government Agencies embraced this approach, because they valued some evidence of grasp of the key practices in project management. The curriculum included:

  • Small Project Management, a 2-day workshop
  • Early Project Estimating, a 2-day workshop
  • Project Management Tools ‘N Techniques® a 3-day workshop
  • Leading and Managing a Project Team, a 2-day workshop

The Certificate program included a six-week post-course follow-up for each workshop, where Managers of the learners worked with their staff to assess their application of the workshop’s Learning Objectives. To earn the Certificate, participants were evaluated in two ways: They a) completed the 4-course sequence; and b) scored a minimum percentage (set by each organization) of demonstrated learning. Ultimately, it was the Managers who decided the certificate award, a Certificate in Project Management. Note that only some of my clients were willing to spend the time needed to assure that their participants’ learning was effective-–a syndrome that remains in many organizations today.

Admittedly, this was a bit different than today’s post-course exam that results in a PM Certificate. But even back in 1985 I was more interested in longer-term retention and application of the material on the job, than in short-term testing of knowledge (that we all know soon dissipates if not applied). My approach was also explicitly designed to engage Managers in the application of the content, because I had seen so many cases where the classroom experience never improved effectiveness on the job. Admittedly, my approach also usually resulted in a few more billable days of Management Training in PM into the organization. Managers cannot assess that which they do not understand.

Several years later, I updated that certificate program for organizations that licensed our integrated Project Management + Systems Engineering Methodology, WiSDM (Web-inspired System Delivery Method). This was a popular product from the mid 1980’s on, developed and marketed with business partner Dan Myers. That Certificate program included Business Analysts, Project Managers, and Small Project Managers (a discipline that requires skills from both areas). The Certificate’s purpose was to assure not only trained practitioners, but demonstrating practitioners. The program also helped drive accountability for effective use of licensed methods and PM learning higher into the organization. One key outcome was delivery of workshops for organization Executives, as they learned how to improve the effectiveness of their project-related initiatives. This was always a key success factor in measurable organization performance improvement.

Benefits of Certificates
Well-structured Certificates in PM benefit the certificate-earners and their organizations. Of course, the selection of the curricula or content covered affects the extent of benefit. For example, our original certificate moved far beyond the typical PM class of 1985, to address the key content that made a difference in project success-–including better scope/estimate traceability throughout the project, stakeholder engagement from concept through benefits realization, clear modifications in approaches and skills applied for projects of different sizes, and the all-important “soft skills” and leadership insights.

When we expanded our certificate program for our methodology, we moved beyond classic PM body-of-knowledge content (by then, Max Wideman had produced the first bok), to also include the most-important end-to-end processes, enabling policies, key roles and responsibilities, templates and examples of good deliverables, and review processes with checklists for quality results. Certificating for these added capabilities was more-difficult, but also resulted in significantly more application of the learning in the workplace-–together with significantly improved measurable benefits. This is just one reason why (I think) PRINCE2 is now the fastest-growing PM Certification, because it provides similar on-the-job applicability, as opposed to some other certifications.

Certificates can result in significant benefits; but they are not Certifications, and it is time to understand the differences.

The Differences
While the differences between Certificates and Certifications have been clear to me for over 25 years, this posting was triggered by a recently received bulk-email ad from some PM training company. Their ad stated that their Certified Project Manager (CPM with a trademark!) training would get me certified. While their curriculum looks useful, and I suspect participants can actually apply the material from this public workshop on their job, it appears that this vendor doesn’t really understand the difference between a certificate and a certification. And, it is not just this one company. If you read the ads in magazines, on the web, and elsewhere, you will find far too many cases of training companies failing to understand the difference between a certificate and a certification.

You can do your own web search of terms like certificates versus certification to find dozens of useful references––if you care to know the differences. One such search result, which is a bit old (2001), so is no longer available, was at, an organization that certifies Fund-Raising Executives. Among the key distinctions they cite is that Certifications (which we will call C1) come from an assessment process, while Certificates (C2) come from an educational process; that a C1 is by a third-party, standards-setting organization, while C2s are from educational programs; that a C1 is a credential used after your name, while a C2 is part of your resume. We found many other articles, that stated pretty much the same things.

The consistency is not surprising. For years, an organization, formerly called NOCA,  has published guidelines for legitimate certification across all industries. Now named, they are an organization that credentials credentialers. They have also recently produced a set of standards for Certificate programs. Clearly, they see the need for consistency in both Certificate and Certification programs.

The Only PM Certifications
So, what does all this mean? It means that IPMA-USA (IPMA-USA), Project Management Institute, CompTIA, APM Group (with their PRINCE2 Certifications), and a few others, are the organizations in the USA that offer PM Certifications. The others offer Certificates. And even with some of these organizations, there may be concerns. For example, a key NOCA/ICE standards criteria is that the testing or assessment must be done by a body that is independent of any training. An implication, according to another interesting article we found, would prohibit certifying bodies from “developing, approving or delivering” cert-prep courses. Sorry, all those cert-prep PDUs might be invalid, if they come from “approved” providers. This is interesting to us, because our entry-level PM certification, IPMA Level D®, requires no cert-prep; just a common-sense review of the recommended readings, plus a bit of actual application, to help the acquired PM knowledge to move towards skill.

Certificates Are Valuable
We don’t know why so many people call their certificates certifications. Certificates, properly positioned, are very valuable. For example, IPMA-USA’s SCiPM, a “truth in advertising” offering, is our Student Certificate in Project Management. It offers students in participating accredited Universities a Certificate that shows that they participated, and demonstrated grasp of the materials, as prescribed by a third party (IPMA-USA) in an exam. SCiPM was developed by past IPMA-USA Director of Education Dr. Gary Klein at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. It continues at that school as a working and successful example. Current Director of Education Dr. Neeraj Parolia is implementing SCiPM at Towson University in Maryland; recently the two presented about the SCiPM certificate to an eager audience of Educators in Toledo. Among the benefits of IPMA-USA’s SCiPM program: Successful students add their achievement on their resume, just as the rules for certificates prescribe.

Why Do We Care
Remember, this is a personal opinion posting, just like all our other blog posts, and not necessarily the opinion of IPMA-USA. So, the above we must be an imperial we. We care for several key reasons:

  • The faux certifications confuse the market, and some may actually draw funds away from efforts that would otherwise improve PM Performance.
  • Many of the providers appear to offer useful curricula, that could be better-focused on a framework that really can improve performance. For example, IPMA’s Individual Competence Baseline (ICB) emphasizes the importance of Interpersonal Skills, and working more-effectively in the Project Context.
  • Some providers are so confused that they use the words Certificate and Certification interchangeably for the same program on the same web page. This only confuses the market further.
  • Because a well-crafted and correctly-named certificate program can provide significant value. This is demonstrated by IPMA-USA’s SCiPM program, and many valuable Educational programs, such as Stanford University’s Advanced Project Management Certificate.
  • Some providers clearly understand the difference. One example we found is ESI International, one of the larger PM training companies. They clearly position their Certificate programs as such.

IPMA-USA is working on new certificate programs. For example, we are considering one that is for situations where Advanced Certifications of Project and Program Manager performance competence are not required, but managerial knowledge of the impact of competent PM is essential. These will not compete with, but instead, will nicely complement our Advanced Certification program. But that is a different topic. We only bring it up to demonstrate that we know the difference between a Certificate and a Certification. Do you?

We don’t fault (well, not too much) the PM training vendor that triggered this article; many of their competitors use the same flawed terminology for what otherwise appear to be very viable offerings. But the PM training industry members had better soon figure how what they are promising, and more-accurately use the terms. At least, they should do so if they hope to get their fair share of those scarce Billions of $USD that should really be helping to improve organizational PM Performance.

We see many, especially among the major Universities, who properly position their offerings as Certificates in PM. They clearly understand the difference, and they do their institutions and customers (students) a great service. Meanwhile, if you are a PM training or learning vendor (or both), we encourage you to look at your programs, and their marketing, and align your terminology to more-accurately position your offerings.