Is certification valuable, or not? We have the definitive answer

* A three-year IDC study provides real data that shows the relationship between training, certification and the functional performance of teams of IT professionals

Are IT certifications still relevant today, or are they not worth the time, effort and money? This debate has raged for years. Now, an in-depth three-year IDC study provides real data that shows the relationship between training, certification and the functional performance of teams of IT professionals.

Over the years I've been involved in the debate over whether or not IT certifications provide value to the individuals who attain them and the companies that employ these individuals. I've always held the belief that certifications are important, but there are quite a few people who make the argument that certifications aren't relevant today. A case can be made either way based on empirical data and anecdotal stories.

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Now, an in-depth three-year IDC study provides real data that shows the relationship between training, certification and the functional performance of teams of IT professionals. The results of this study are in the November 2009 report by Cushing Anderson called "Impact of Training on Network Administration: Certification Leads to Operational Productivity."

IDC's 36-month study involved surveying more than 1,100 IT managers who are responsible for more than 3,000 teams. The survey asked for details about more than 80 IT performance metrics in 26 different functional domains, which include deployment, development, management, security, storage and support. Having analyzed all that data, IDC has come to the conclusion that certification in relevant areas matters, and here's why.

Increasingly, companies are relying on their IT departments to go beyond simply deploying and operating IT systems. IT departments are often included in business transformations and process improvements that will help the business grow and become more profitable. This means the department needs to have a staff of people with both business acumen and IT knowledge and skills. Anderson writes, "Organizations focused on driving growth, managing risks, and cutting overhead expenses rely on IT departments to manage convergence, complex infrastructures, and the proliferation of sophisticated edge devices (e.g., notebooks and PDAs). IT talent must combine technical capabilities with the ability to manage projects and complex situations that bring alignment with business goals."

This IT talent is often organized in teams -- groups of people who collaborate on projects to bring about the best results possible. IDC's research has shown that high-performance teams are comprised of individuals who possess current and relevant skills and knowledge. What's more, the team members' skills must be complementary and comprehensive enough for the project at hand. "Training and certification are effective measures of how well team members can work with specific technologies, hardware, and software," Anderson writes.

"Used properly, certifications play key roles at the convergence of business and IT trends. IDC research shows a direct relationship between higher levels of certification and improved performance -- when team skills improve, organizational performance increases proportionally," according to Anderson. "The percentage of relevant certifications a team holds is a reliable measure of an IT team's functional capability. Each new certification increases team performance."

In a 2008 IDC Training Impact Survey, nearly 61% of the respondents ranked "skill of the team" as the factor that contributes most to the success of technology functions. "The support of the technology vendor ... the effort of the team," and other factors ranked far below the value of the team's skills in determining a successful outcome of an IT project. In most cases, certification is a fairly good measure of skill.

The IDC study looked at the impact of certifications on network administration functions, focusing on five common activities:

* Network security performance -- Teams with more certifications had about 10% more devices in full compliance with security policies on average.

* Server and client application deployment -- Applications and network capabilities were deployed on time and on budget about 10% more frequently at organizations with greater concentrations of certified staff.

* Network availability-- Unscheduled downtime was about 20% lower at organizations with more certified IT staff.

* Budget spent on external support for network management -- Organizations with a higher percentage of certified staff spent about 20% less on support costs for general network management.

* Budget spent on external support for network security -- Organizations with higher concentrations of certified staff spent about 30 percent less on external support for network security activities.

The report draws the conclusion that certification helps achieve business goals. Anderson writes, "To achieve top-tier performance, organizations should strive for most of the team to be certified in relevant technologies and processes." I've always had that belief, but now we have the actual data to back it up.

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