Saturday, April 18, 2015

Cost of broken promises

Join me at THE Performance Improvement Conference in San Antonio, April 26-29.  I am presenting Weds, Apr 29th on Digital Badges Validate 21st Century ID Skills. Come to my session and introduce yourself.                   
What is the cost of  breaking the public promise?  At the bottom of this column are a series of links related to publicized cases where students have refused to pay their college student loan debts or have asked the college to return their fees plus hardship.  These are extreme examples or symptoms of a broken promise.  The promise?  That these students will be employable after completing their education.

This could just as easily be a certificant of a professional association, who spend thousands of dollars and months or years studying for a high-stakes exam only to find that there is no work for them, even though they are certified.

Alternatively, it could be an employer suing that professional association for damage caused by a credentialed member.  They hired with the belief that the individual could do the work because that individual held the associations credential.

The issue of broken promises comes to a head in litigation.  Professional associations manage these expectations carefully in order to prevent or minimize litigation.  As other types of organization (schools, libraries, museums, and community centers) enter the market with microcredentials and badges, leadership needs to consider the issue of promises.

The specter of broken promises and litigation does not go away or lessen when the credential is a microcredential (a.k.a. badge).  Just because it is NOT a certifications, does not mean that due diligence can be ignored.  The issue of public promise for a microcredential is muddled by a variety of factors such as information availability (access), the ability to evaluate that information, and whether this is a singular phenomenon or not.   These, too, may be considered to be part-and-parcel of the public promise of a digitally branded credential.

The best defense will be a well-constructed information campaign that includes factual data about each credential’s promises [insert link to previous blog] and performance against promise.    

Who has expectations of our declared and implied public promises?

  • Individuals awardee who receive the credential or microcredential
  • The field within which you and the awardee work
  • The general public 

Individual Expectations

What might individuals expect of their microcredential when it comes to advancement?  Where are the potential places that a microcredential’s promise might break down?   We need to take time to find out what is expected of our credentials.

Individuals working toward and eventually receiving any credential expect that it:
Is honored, valued, and recognized
Adds financial or other value to their livelihood or lives
Leads to advancement

Credential is honored/valued/recognized

Performance-based credentials derive a certain amount of their value simply from the act of performance and the follow-up recognition of that performance.  This is where microcredentials shine. They are discrete, skill-focused in nature and they create a personal value from the goal accomplishment inherent in the completion of a performance standard.  

With a microcredential, advancement may be related to tackling a higher skill level, rather than career advancement.  Many microcredentials aggregate to ‘level up’ to a more advanced credential.
What does your microcredential promise the individual credential holder?  Is that promise different for the individual with one microcredential versus individual with many microcredentials?


The portability and accessibility of a microcredential is inherent in its structure.   For digitally branded microcredentials, there is a built-in promise that this credential can be found and share.
So what happens when an organization can not support the cost of the chosen badge software platform and administrative staff to support software?  What happens when the badge receiver believes that their badge will be digitally available for “the rest of their life”, when you only meant that it would be available this calendar year?


Let’s also consider the adult market for digital badges where many adults do have the ability to follow complex technical instructions required to upload and manage their digital badge in a social media site.  It’s promised share-ability has been compromised. In addition, the badge holder feels devalued because they were unable to follow those directions.

I recently worked with an associate who is a small business owner.  The Better Business Bureau had awarded her an A+ and had provided her with a digital badge to use on her website.  We managed to get it up and running because I understood how to copy-paste a snippet of code.  This was not in her vocabulary at all.  It was easy to do, but without me as interface, she never would have figured it out. Would she have felt letdown by a promise that was not full-fillable?  I suspect so.  Would it have caused something as a lawsuit?  Probably not.  Though she may have become less of an advocate of the BBB.

Financial Value

Income is, perhaps, the easiest financial value to see.   However, other career related values accrue as well – confidence, professionalism, credibility, or even personal satisfaction of goal attainment in our field.  (Consider the fact that receiving a Ph.D. seldom qualifies one for a higher pay scale, but thousands of people choose this path anyway.)

Attaining certain microcredentials may allow the individual be tapped for special projects or career advancement, which in turn may result in increased income.  We can see this best in the military where specialized career paths are displayed with pride in stripes, stars, medals, and ribbons on their uniforms.

At the lowest financial denominator, keeping one’s job may be the value of some microcredentials.

The “it is required for employment” may be the inherent value.  This often shows up in customer service programs where gamification and digital badging is focused on whether the individual meets minimum work standards… and, woe be the person who does not meet minimum standards. s

Personal Value 

The term ‘bucket list’ has recently become ubiquitous for all those goals we have awaiting our ‘someday’ plan… that photo safari, the trip to (name a place), quilting a blanket, baking a complex dessert, or as the Tim McGraw song says ‘Riding a bull named Fu Manchu for 2.7 seconds.’ We have our own personal badges for these activities – photos, memories, tchotchkes – no organization needs to provide us with a digital souvenir.  Trying may be enough.  Any advancement is inherent as personal goal attainment.  Once done, we move on to other things.  It may be more advanced skills in the same area… or trying something else… or not (thinking of bull riding, here).

For which goals do we need acknowledgement by an organization?  Which do we do for ourselves? How does that acknowledgement create advancement for us?

Perhaps we need to ask our microcredential and badge recipients how this works for them.  

The Field: Standards of practice for practitioners

The second group that receives value from defining one or more microcredentials is the field in which that microcredential is situated.   Defining the performance(s) required to attain a microcredential creates a certain degree of validity for the field, by the field, and in the field.

Standard setting is a deliberate practice of defining measurable, observable behaviors, their outcomes, and the contexts within which they occur.

However, ‘the field’ is a bit abstract. There are fields inside of fields and stakeholders often cross many fields. We tend to use some touchstone groups as judges of whether the field is getting its value – employers, educators at the next level of education, parents (where badge earners are young), and recruiters for employment, education, or other services.  When individuals in these groups buy into the value of a microcredential or series of microcredentials, the microcredentials’ value takes off exponentially.  Think about the excitement that badges, patches, pins, and paraphernalia denoting successful microcredential completion has in youth associations.  Success breeds success.  Most children continue with the program for several years, or until another fascination presents itself.

Youth programs have been carefully crafted over many decades of experience in pacing these recognitions for encouragement, skill development, and increased sense of self-confidence and self-respect.  Adult community programs have a long way to go to catch up.  Professional associations have still further to go, since their model is about end-states rather than progressive development over time.

What does your field need?  One credential that opens the door for everyone or many credentials that recognize specific skill subsets?  Does it need to show a developmental pattern as youth groups and the military do?  How do we bring these perspectives together? If we are not able to do so, will there be a set of broken promises?

The Public:  Everyone everywhere

The ultimate winner (or loser) is the general public – the person or person’s at the other end of the process who expects a specific skillset and does not receive it.

That reminds me… many years ago, I took vacation in late September and wandered up to Northern Minnesota for the fall color.  I ended up at a hotel on a reservation near the border.  The hotel provided a nightly bonfire.  I joined the fire circle one night to find that the other members were from various Canadian tribes attending an inter-tribal meeting.  They brought with them hot dogs, buns, marshmallows, graham crackers, and chocolate.  Each of them tried to cook a hot dog on a stick… and failed.  They tried to toast a bun… and failed.  They tried to toast a marshmallow… and failed.  I was not part of their group, but they offered me food.  Eventually, I could no longer turn them down politely. I toasted a hot dog on one fork and my bun another.  Both came out perfect.  My companions wanted to know if I was Indian (I am not) and were confused about how I had these skills and they did not.

They chatted among themselves and then slyly handed me the marshmallows, which also came out perfectly brown and gooey on an unbroken and perfectly assembled ‘Smore.  (Anyone who has tried to do either hot dogs & buns or ‘Smores over a fire, knows that this level of perfection is unheard of and unrealistic.  I was astounded at results, myself… and wondering where this would go.)
Eventually, they gave in and asked how I could do something that they, with their native heritage, could not do.  I said, “Well, cooking over a fire is in my training, was it in yours?”  They agreed it was not.  So, I showed them the technique and explained that I belonged to youth organizations that taught this skill (Camp Fire, Inc.).  They tried again and got successful (though typically variable quality) hot dogs and marshmallows.

Was cooking over a fire a high-art skill that changed the world.  Probably not.  Where was the broken promise?  For them, the broken element was their own training or lack of training in a skill that they felt should have been accessible to them based on their heritage.  We healed that breach with a few minutes of sharing around the fire, a skill that was in their experience base and heritage.
Who is your public and what do they expect from your microcredential?  The reach should be long.

Preventing Broken Promises & Managing Expectations

Your public may be very hard to access or it may be as close as your customer service desk.
What standards have you set for the skills that your microcredential expresses?  Those standards are an essential element of your promise.   It may take some work to reach your public but information from them can be value in tracking the value of your public promise.

In creating credentials (micro or otherwise, digital or otherwise), we often forget to consider the implied promises that we make along with the reality of the award credential.  Managing promise expectations may be the field of the future where communication skills combined with analytics and political savvy must come together to keep our recipients and stakeholders informed and realistic in their expectations.  As a side benefit, defining and managing promise expectations will keep us grounded and focused on whether we are actually making a difference or not.

News Article Links

News articles on debt strikers and debt relief for college students who cannot get jobs -- the broken public promise of higher education.

Coming soon… 

Elementary, My Dear Microcredential Provider (Apr 23)
Digital Badges Validate 21st Century ID Skills (ISPI Conference Presentation) (Apr 30)
Scaling, Scaffolding, and Badging (May 6)
Leveling Up and Career Paths (May 13)
Discovering Expectations and Promises (May 20)
… unless a better topic unfolds, of course

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