In 2016, a team of professors at Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University spent months converting a series of classroom-based executive education classes into a digital badge program. The courses would be available online, allowing students to complete them in a matter of weeks, for a fraction of the cost of attending classes on campus, and receive a badge certifying they completed the program.
It was an unusual move for a business school that caters to MBA students, admitted Dan Stotz, executive director of executive education programs at the Georgia-based university. He noted that some of his colleagues worried the badges would poach executive candidates, but he believes the content will actually bring in more students. “We aren’t competing with the MBA program, we are competing with nonconsumption of learning.”
Microcredential programs are viewed by many as the next evolution of executive education, providing learning options for busy executives who want to learn but don’t have the time, resources or ambition for a full MBA. “There will always be value in a full MBA, but the microcredential allows busy executives to get a functional background in a specific area like finance or IT,” said Tim Gates, senior regional vice president at Adecco Staffing in Pittsburgh. And with every new credential, they have something new to add to their résumé or LinkedIn profile.
Shaun Walker is one of those busy executives. As co-founder and creative director of HeroFarm, a marketing company in New Orleans, he knew an MBA program would help him expand his company and his personal network, but he couldn’t see himself taking the time away from his business to do a full MBA. Instead, he signed up for Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses, a microdegree program that provides small-business owners with a crash-course style MBA. The free four-month program met two to three times a week, giving participants a similar — if abbreviated — experience to an executive MBA. Walker learned the basics of business and finance within a cohort of local peers, who continue to network and support each other as their companies grow. “I got a ton of valuable knowledge and contacts, and I didn’t have to go into debt to get it,” he said.
After the MBA
Even the most ardent champions of MBAs see the benefits of this trend.
“There is no question that a microcredential has value, depending on what you are looking for,” said Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council, which calls itself the “Global voice of the executive MBA industry.” In its 2018 study, “Understanding the Implications of the Digital Generation on Business Education,” 60 percent of respondents said they saw value in pursuing an MBA in the next 10 years, while 90 percent said they saw value in certifications and badges in reaching professional development goals. He noted that many EMBAC members already offer nondegree executive education programs to help professionals fill knowledge gaps. “We don’t talk about them as ‘microcredentials’ but they’ve been around for years.”
For midcareer professionals who may already have an MBA, microcredentials offer a way to bone up on the latest business and technology trends, while early career professionals can use them to develop specific skills or knowledge that will help them stand out, said Ryan Craig, co-founder and managing director of New York-based University Ventures, an investment firm focused on the global higher-education sector, and author of “A New U: Faster and Cheaper Alternatives to College.”
“Many young Americans, and those requiring reskilling, are looking for a cheaper path to an education,” Craig said. “Microcredentials let them make a less risky investment in their future so they can get their foot on the first rung of the career ladder.”
Companies are also taking advantage of this trend to meet the learning needs of workers — particularly millennials who expect career development opportunities as a condition of sticking around. “In the olden days, employees had to pay their dues before getting onto a high-performer learning track,” Stotz said. But millennials don’t want to wait to be trained. Gallup’s report, “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” found 87 percent of millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as important to them in a job, and 59 percent say opportunities to learn and grow are extremely important when applying for a job. “Companies can use microcredentials to provide meaningful professional development right away.”
Fortunately, they have many options to choose from. In the past few years public universities, executive content developers and even in-house corporate learning departments have rolled out a variety of microcredentials, nanodegrees and badge programs on every relevant business topic from cybersecurity and artificial intelligence to leadership, finance and business management.
Added Value or Waste of Time
There is still some question as to whether employers will value these programs when hiring candidates or training employees.
In theory, a microcredential should help hiring managers determine which candidate or contract worker has demonstrated skills or knowledge, but that depends on what stock they put in those programs. While credentials from well-known universities or a Fortune 500 corporate training program may carry instant credibility, a badge from a little-known for-profit training company or free online platform may be met with skepticism, Desiderio said. He believes that while some microcredentials may stand out when hiring candidates for hard-to-fill tech roles, it will likely be years before soft skills programs in leadership or management carry significant weight for hiring and promotion decisions. “We don’t have enough data yet to determine how much value they bring.”
To determine value in the interim, Stotz encourages companies to consider who developed the course, what research was used to support content development, how interactive it is and the percentage of students who complete the program. “You want to see a balance of theory and practice in the content,” Stotz advised. “Theory without practice is irrelevant, and practice without theory is unsustainable.”
In the meantime, Gates urges companies to pay attention to these credentials when assessing a candidate’s fit for a job. “The labor market is so tight, these programs can expand your potential candidate pool,” he said. A candidate with a stack of credentials proves they have recent training — and it demonstrates that they are invested in their own development, he said. “Companies that are open-minded to these credentials have a great opportunity to find candidates who are a good match for the job.”
Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in Chicago. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.