Certification demonstrates Competence, But Not Excellence – Discuss

When you hire someone to do a job for you, whether it’s mending your car or servicing your central heating boiler, replacing a filling in your tooth or developing software for your business, you want to know they are competent. But assuming you are not an expert in that area yourself, how do you assess their skills and abilities? The smartest thing to do is get a well-informed but independent opinion – and that’s where certification comes in.

ISO9001 is a must-have

Each sector and industry has its own types of certifications and standards but ISO 9001 certification is suitable for all sizes and types of organisations and is well established around the world as an invaluable Quality Management System standard.  If a company does not have this minimum level of certification it raises questions.

Having ISO9001 certification is therefore essential if a company is to be taken seriously – most clients expect you to have it. It’s not a legal requirement but it’s a business requirement. If you don’t have it you’re leaving yourself open to potential clients looking elsewhere! For this reason Zircon has been ISO9001 certified for almost as long as we’ve been trading.

TickIT – over and above ISO9001

ISO9001 is, however, a very basic and general quality management standard. So each individual sector and industry has developed its own more specific set of standards. In the case of the software development industry one of the main standards in the UK has been TickIT.

TickIT built upon the ISO9000 foundation and companies seeking TickIT certification were required to show conformity with ISO 9000. The main objective of TickIT was to provide the industry with a practical framework for the management of software development quality by providing more effective quality management system certification procedures. These involved:

  • Publishing guidance material to assist software organizations interpret the requirements of ISO 9001
  • Training, selecting and registering auditors with IT experience and competence
  • Introducing rules for the accreditation of certification bodies practising in the software sector

Zircon had been TickIT certified for a number of years.

Introducing TickITplus

TickIT has recently been phased out and replaced by TickITplus and Zircon has successfully completed the TickITplus certification process (see our recent post). This was a time consuming exercise so we asked ourselves whether it was necessary – the cynics amongst us (that’s all of us…) suggested that this was just a clever way for those managing the scheme to squeeze more money out of people!

The official reason given for the upgrade is that TickIT has become outdated – the industry has diversified and the certification system needs to be upgraded if it is to remain relevant and useful.

Part of this is to do with grading. TickIT audits could only result in a pass or a fail and this is now seen as a serious limitation. Customers are starting to need, and even demand, clearer indications of supplier performance in key business processes, such as risk management, to provide better criteria for supplier selection.

TickITplus is designed to address these issues and adds a new dimension by introducing a grading element. A considerable level of flexibility is given in terms of how a business wants to use this new dimension – flexibility to select the level of capability to be attained and assessed; flexibility to include additional IT related standards; and flexibility to operate either within or outside the certification environment.

In terms of the capability dimension TickITplus will be graded into 5 levels, 4 of them dealing with capability: Foundation – requiring a process model definition only, and Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum, equating to levels 2 – 5 of the ISO/IEC 15504 model. With only minor changes for compatibility, Foundation is equivalent to the old TickIT certification. Once transitioned to the new scheme, an organisation will have the option of which level they wish to aim for.

Organisations will also have the option of including additional relevant standards under their TickITplus ISO 9001 certification, most notably ISO/IEC 20000-1: IT Service Management and ISO/IEC 27001: Information Security Management Systems, but it is anticipated that other standards will be included.

So far the only grade currently available is the Foundation level and we have successfully transitioned across to this.

A painful necessity?

TickITplus and the reasoning behind it is well intentioned. But as we’ve said it does involve companies like ourselves in considerable expense, both in terms of fees and the unpaid effort of demonstrating our ability to jump through increasingly awkward hoops. It’s also an easy source of revenue for those administering the scheme, which comes directly out of our pockets – so you naturally begin to think “I’m in the wrong game here!”

Being realistic, companies like ours have no option but to attain TickITplus certification – without it we would lose business. However, we can at least have a good moan about it!

Playing devil’s advocate

We all know of highly qualified and certified organisations and individuals that you probably wouldn’t want to hire. They’re better at getting ticks in boxes and skipping through hoops than they are at doing the actual job.

The best that can be said for any set of standards which a company has successfully met is that it demonstrates a basic level of competence – it helps you find the good provider, but maybe not the very best.

If you are looking for excellence a more effective approach is to examine the quality of an organisation’s past projects and to get feedback from their clients. Instead of demonstrating an ability to pass an artificial set of tests once a year it proves, without doubt, that the team can successfully deliver a truly great solution in the real world.

Do you want adequate or outstanding?

There’s a huge difference between competence and excellence and this is in large part down to factors the tests cannot effectively measure – the personal qualities of the people actually doing the work. Impenetrable nerds and irritating geeks are ten a penny in our industry, and very good at passing tests. But do you want them working on your project?

If you seek excellence, both in terms of how the work progresses and how the solution performs, you need people who bring more than technical competence to the party – the ability to communicate effectively, a willingness to cooperate, a positive attitude and sense of humour, a good work ethic and developed sense of personal responsibility, a proactive and creative approach to problem solving, the ability to work well under pressure either on their own or as part of a team, a high degree of reliability, honesty and conscientiousness, and that most uncommon characteristic of all…common sense!

We have the talent and the track record

People who combine the necessary technical skills and personal qualities are rare, in high demand and hard to recruit. We go to great lengths to get them on our team, either full time or as associates – as you’ll see from this previous post. We also have Investors in People status (more certification!) which helps us attract great people and develop them to their full capabilities.

This enables us to create high quality solutions whilst keeping the process as efficient, cost effective and painless as possible.