The Commercialisation and Commodification of Competency


Image: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Two or three years ago, I undertook a course involving UX ‘certification’. I had already undertaken courses in HCI and design as part of an MSc(Eng) in Work Design and Ergonomics some years (ahem…21) earlier. And I had already been involved in most aspects of the design and evaluation of interactive systems. So I was interested in what was new. In fact, the course was an overview of an ergonomics standard (and a good one: ISO 9241-210, 2010), which was not new to me but was enjoyable nonetheless. The course lasted two days, with a half day revision session, and a multiple choice exam. The course was well delivered, and the exam was properly invigilated.

But the test, in my view, was primarily a memory test that tested recall or recognition of specific vocabulary. Aspects of the test seemed to focus on dubious and debateable semantic differences, using very similar options that seemed to be designed to confuse. The certification arrangement seemed to encourage teaching to the test, and ironically felt like UX (and accessibility) had been ignored in the certification process, which required a high level of English to wade through the semantic quagmire.

Those who undertook the test came out feeling deflated, doubtful, discouraged and demoralised. Their passion for the subject as newcomers was gone, while existing practitioners were now skeptical of certification, at least of this sort. I know this because I spoke to many immediately after the course. After a while, we either learned that we had passed, or not, the test. Some of the questions were so vague and convoluted that complaints were made. People waited to hear whether their money – or moreover that of their employer – had been well spent and whether they were now certified. I am quite sure though that a ‘pass’ would give most a feeling of relief and pride. We humans, indeed mammals generally, like to be members of clubs, and we like ranks. We see this natural preference throughout organisational life.

There are many other such courses, often a day or a few days in duration, relating to all aspects of work (e.g., safety management, crew resource management [sometimes sold as ‘human factors‘], safety culture, just culture, error management, etc). In my experience, at their best, they offer a starting point for further exploration, but usually little more than that. That is enough. But they are often sold as much more. Importantly, rather than acting as a springboard for reflection, exploration and divergent learning, they act as a dragnet for further convergent indoctrination and up-selling of a defined set of ideas and tools. More worrying still is when they infer membership of an ‘exclusive’ club (which may benefit the owner of the club much more than the members).

Such training is often associated with ‘tools’ (almost always trademarked) that are licensed for profit, often combined with mandatory commercial training, refresher training, and ongoing subscription by the tool developer. Trade-marking and licensing is often a legitimate and necessary way to protect intellectual property (especially for small businesses). But it does not infer quality. Some of these tools lack innovation, have been overtaken by fundamental changes in theory, or are available in similar form elsewhere freely or at reduced cost, and yet subscription and licensing services can lock users into hard or soft dependency.

So here are a five things to look out for, and associated questions to consider, when considering products and services of this nature. They are not in any way definitive. There will be other criteria and questions, and some of these may not indicate a problem, but they may be useful things to think about.

  1. Dependency: Does it lock you into dependency? Is it hard to move to something more suitable, with a different supplier or service provider, for hard reasons (e.g., contracts; subscription) or soft reasons (e.g., feelings of commitment; sunk cost)?
  2. Manufactured exclusivity: Does it create ‘exclusivity’, and the sense of being an ‘insider’, or ‘part of something’ (a club, scheme, network, community, user group, benchmarking group)? Does your feeling about it, and evaluation of it, depend on your membership status, or whether you pass a test? Does it involve ranks (belts, ‘Master’ status, bronze/silver/gold) or other appeals to pride?
  3. Dubious value: Can your need realistically be met by reading along with online/in person discussion groups, supervised practice, etc? Is something comparable available elsewhere that provides much of the value, at much reduced cost? Is the product or service outside of a respected, independent not-for-profit regulation or certification body?
  4. Closed: Does it remain fixed, and not updated in light of scientific developments and changes in theory and method? Is independent evaluation precluded? Does it ignore fundamental challenges to its assumptions, theory, method, etc? Is critical reflection and inquiry discouraged? Is exploration of alternative approaches discouraged, without good reason?
  5. Control: Is control (over ideas, information, method, theory, means of interaction and exchange) highly centralised into one person or private commercial entity?

If you can answer ‘Yes’ to a few of these questions, this may not be a problem. The product or service may provide sufficient value, or the questions answered ‘Yes’ may not be significant. But increasing ‘Yes’ responses may indicate a problem, and in this case you might want to consider whether the product or service is what you need, or what someone else wants you to need.

About stevenshorrock

I am a systems ergonomist/human factors specialist and work psychologist with a background in practice and research in safety-critical industries. My main interest is human and system behaviour in the context of safety-related organisations. I seek to enable improvement via a combination of systems thinking, design thinking and humanistic thinking. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.
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