Value of Certification (VoC):
An Exploration of Concept and
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Why should credential holders and those who employ them care about your credential? Said differently, what‘s in it for them? This is the focus of value of certification (VoC). VoC seeks to understand the various stakeholder audiences for the credentialing organization, explore the factors important to them, and communicate these messages to the market and promote the credential. This white paper will explore the concept of VoC and explore its various intrinsic and extrinsic forms through the existing academic and professional literature. In addition, this paper will present examples from various credentialing bodies to demonstrate how organizations prioritize VoC factors and communicate them to credential holders, hiring managers, HR professionals, and executives. The white paper will be most useful for credential managers or executives who are new to the concept of VoC or who have not previously researched and organized value indicators for a credential. This paper will serve as a guide for understanding what VoC is, how you can use it, and how to start your own VoC study, regardless of whether you use ICE‘s Value of Certification Toolkit or engage an external consultant.
What is the value of a certification program? In addition, why should a certification body care about the concept? Many certification programs operate under lofty visions that seek change in the world, yet they do not define the value of certifications that practitioners and organizations will use to achieve these goals. Demonstrating the value of a certification program is a central responsibility of the certification entity, just as it is the responsibility of any product owner to show the value of the product to the purchaser (Pride & Ferrell, 2006). By demonstrating the value of a certification, the certification body can clearly show the usefulness of a certification program and document the certificants‘ return on investment (Knapp and Associates, 2012). Similarly, the value of certification can serve as a tool in marketing. Capturing value indicators can also serve as an important feedback mechanism to the certification body regarding where a value proposition may need to be enhanced (Knapp and Associates, 2012). Finally, since perception of certification is closely related to the propensity of a stakeholder to advocate for a certification (Massella, Simons, Young, Haas, & Toth, 2013), understanding and building value is critical to stakeholders‘ word of mouth marketing (Herscott, 2005).
Using academic and professional literature, this white paper will review the concept of Value of Certification (VoC), exploring the various ways to define value in the certification market. The paper will also present how to determine which stakeholders are critical and what types of value are important to them. Next, it will explain a potential VoC research process. Finally, the paper will cover how to use VoC information in value-based marketing.
It should also be noted that these factors are most applicable to certification bodies, rather than issuers of licenses. Since licensure serves as a barrier to employment in a profession, its value factors are directly tangible and less impactful to market growth and penetration.
Defining Value of Certification (VoC)
All products have some definition of value. This value can be concrete, as in the case of a tangible good. For example, soap has value in its power to wash and clean. However,
manufacturers do not price or market all soaps the same. Some soaps may have more value if you prefer their scent to that of other soaps. Alternatively, soap may have additive value if its manufacturer uses an environmentally-friendly production method. Similarly, coffee has a value as a beverage and mild stimulant. However, you might drink a name brand of coffee, such as Starbucks©, if you want others to perceive you in a certain way. Both examples illustrate the definition of product value.
Value can be defined in a variety of ways. Philosophers originally defined value as exchange value, the price that a person is willing to give in the marketplace for a product or service (von Wieser, 1928). Another value assessment model is utility value, which is the value that a person obtains from the product or service (von Wieser, 1928). Synthesizing this information, value is an assessment of the worth of a good or service (Neap and Celik, 1999). Expressed as a formula, Neap and Celik (1999) defined value as shown in the equation that follows, where C =
Cost and SF = Subjective Factors, which can be defined in a variety of ways (e.g., product durability).
While the examples above express value in the context of a tangible good, consumers value services in the same manner. Similarly, certificants define a certification‘s value using its monetary cost. This monetary cost may include the certification fee; preparatory materials; time spent completing a certification application, studying, and taking the examination; lost wages due to time spent on the process; recertification costs, and other cost factors. In addition to monetary costs, certificants will add their perception of the value of the certification, expressed above as Subjective Factors. Subjective Factors typically take the form of intrinsic value indicators defined below, such as personal accomplishment, professional credibility, and professional growth.
How certification bodies can meet these certificant factors will take a number of forms. Different certification bodies will have a variety of factors, such as certification scope and breadth,
certification difficulty level, certification maturity, requirement or preference by employers and/or regulatory bodies, and acceptance by and maturity of the profession itself. As a certification and profession mature, certifications generally move toward more tangible and extrinsic factors. Researchers have traditionally differentiated value factors by whether they are extrinsic or intrinsic (Holbrook, 1999). Extrinsic value factors meet practical needs. Products that have extrinsic value meet an end in and of themselves (Wagner, 1999). In contrast, intrinsic value factors meet terminal needs and ―…are consumed only for the pleasure derived from having fun, feeling virtuous or rejoicing in spirituality‖ (Wagner, 1999, p. 135). Typical product extrinsic factors include packaging, price, brand name, advertising, and external validation or ‗seal of approval‘ (Idoko, Ireneus, Nkamnebe, & Okoye, 2013).
Intrinsic Value Factors
Intrinsic value factors are the most typical for certifications. Those who seek to stand out from their peers frequently seek certifications initially, as a form of early adopters. Thus, perception by others is a significant intrinsic value factor. An additional significant intrinsic value factor is the demonstration of a certain level of knowledge or competence. Other major intrinsic value factors include demonstrating commitment to the profession, achieving a feeling of personal achievement and/or personal satisfaction, enhancing professional knowledge and skills, and increasing professional confidence (Eatchel, Straehle, & McCorkle, 2013).
One example of a framework of intrinsic value factors is the Perceived Value of Certification Tool (PVCT). This instrument has been validated as a VoC measure specific to nursing (Sechrist & Berlin, 2006). This instrument includes 12 intrinsic value factors:
1. enhances feeling of personal accomplishment 2. validates specialized knowledge
3. provides personal satisfaction 4. indicates professional growth 5. provides professional challenge
6 6. indicates attainment of a practice standard 7. enhances professional credibility
8. provides evidence of professional commitment 9. enhances personal confidence in clinical abilities 10. provides evidence of accountability
11. indicates level of clinical competence
12. enhances professional autonomy (Sechrist & Berlin, 2006)
While the value indicators above pertain to certificants, hiring managers, organizations, and government/regulatory bodies have differing intrinsic value factors. Certification can lead to enhanced employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, and enhanced organizational
competencies (Eatchel, Straehle, & McCorkle, 2013). In addition, certification may better define a profession, distinguish a profession from other disciplines, and reduce incompetence among professionals (Livingood, Woodhouse, & Godin, 1995).
Extrinsic Value Factors
Extrinsic value factors for certificants typically evolve as acceptance of the certification program increases. Extrinsic factors can include increased salary, access to additional jobs that require the certification, or a promotion (Eatchel, Straehle, & McCorkle, 2013). Additional extrinsic value factors on the PVCT include:
promoting recognition from peers increasing marketability
promoting recognition from other health professionals increasing customer confidence
promoting recognition from employers increasing salary (Sechrist & Berlin, 2006)
In particular, increases in salary and increased career development opportunities make for powerful marketing statements (Cary, 2001). This information can be formalized in tools like salary surveys (PMI, 2013) or marketing messaging.
For hiring managers, organizations, and government/regulatory bodies, extrinsic value factors can include obtaining additional contracts, improving work quality and/or productivity, and decreasing employee turnover (Eatchel, Straehle, & McCorkle, 2013; Livingood, Woodhouse, & Godin, 1995).
Value factors vary based upon stakeholder groups. Thus, to properly assess VoC, it is critical to determine which stakeholder groups are important to the certification program, how each relates to certification decisions, and how stakeholder groups assess VoC (Knapp & Associates, 2012). Many certification bodies focus on messaging to certificants who are seen as direct customers. However, to grow and mature a certification program, it is critical to understand its value to other stakeholders. This understanding will build an organization‘s business-to-business (B2B)
Figure 1. Stakeholder Groups by Consumer and Business Groups
Certificants are the primary stakeholder group for a certification body. As discussed previously, certificants tend to value certifications for attributes that help them stand apart from other professionals. However, it is also important to consider profession-specific value factors.
Certificants are not the only practitioners who should be involved in a VoC study. Certification bodies should elicit information from non-certificant professionals regarding their perception of certification value. While the information may be less valuable in marketing messages, other VoC studies have also found that even non-certificants hold a certification as highly valuable (Roberts, 2005; Sechrist, Valentine, & Berlin, 2006).
Hiring managers, executives for organizations who hire certificants and other organizational leaders (e.g., Community of Practice leaders), are another critical stakeholder group. Certification bodies must consider this group in value messaging since these individuals
establish critical policies for certificants on considerations such as reimbursement of certification expenses, whether certifications are required or preferred, and whether employees are allowed time to study. For certification bodies who achieve endorsement by organization, this can positively affect certification rates (Brown, Murphy, Norton, Baldwin, & Ponto, 2010). In many professions, hiring managers are also certificants, thus extending the reach of value messaging (Haskins, Hnatiuk, & Yoder, 2011).
At times, the benefits that certificants receive should be cautiously approached in messaging, due to a potential mismatch between the organization‘s desire for improvement in employee knowledge, skill, and competency and the certificant‘s desire for increased salary or job
B2C (Business-to-Consumer) Certificants Noncertificants Public B2B (Business-to-Business) Hiring managers Organizational leaders/executives HR professionals
Training and certification preparatory organizations Governments and regulatory entities
portability. In the author‘s experience, some professionals have shared times where they have been discouraged from seeking a certification as the organization is concerned about the employee leaving as soon as it is achieved. Thus, it is critical to market benefits specific to organizations. Examples include the following:
Microsoft found increased levels of team performance and service provided to customers by certificants versus non-certificants (Microsoft, 2007).
Other organizations have found benefits to employee performance through the education required when earning a certification (Martinez, 1999).
Human Resource (HR) Professionals
HR professionals are another organizationally aligned stakeholder group playing a role in the implementation of policies affecting certification. HR professionals may use certifications to screen or to narrow criteria for job candidates. For example, research has shown that
organizations value certifications highly when making selection decisions (Garza & Morgeson, 2012). When determining a practitioner‘s commitment to a profession, HR specialists consider knowledge, skill, and performance value factors, as well as the role of certifications. Thus, certification may reduce employee turnover and enhance employee satisfaction. For example, research has found that certified critical care nurses are significantly more empowered in the profession and significantly less likely to leave the profession than their noncredentialed counterparts (Fitzpatrick, Campo, Graham, & Lavandero, 2010). Another study found that certified medical-surgical nurses were less likely to leave their current employer (Haskins, Hnatiuk, & Yoder, 2011).
Training and Certification Preparatory Organizations
Training and certification preparatory organizations are stakeholders for the certification body. Although certification bodies must be careful to protect the integrity of the certification process, training providers may extend the marketing reach of the certification program and promote its value. These entities are likely to look for different certification value factors, particularly as they relate to enhancing the organization‘s educational offerings and contributions to revenue
(Eatchel, Straehle, & McCorkle, 2013). For example, certification can provide these
organizations tools to evaluate course and program content, such as results from job analyses (Ray & McCoy, 2000).
Governmental and regulatory entities can have a major effect on the acceptance of a
certification. Governmental requirements for a certification, such as the requirement of a Project Management Professional (PMP) for certain government contracts (Prier, McCue, & Behara, 2010) or cybersecurity certifications being mandated for select government jobs (Department of Defense, 2005), can rapidly accelerate the growth and extrinsic value of a certification. These entities are likely to look for enhanced professional knowledge, skills, and performance. The need to demonstrate value to governmental and regulatory entities is expanded in certain industries, such as healthcare. In some industries, certification is required by practitioners
before they can be admitted into health insurance networks (Gourley, Fitzgerald, & Davis, 1997). Industries with a high degree of concern for health, safety, and welfare will have a higher potential for being valued by these entities and the public, based upon differences in practice between certificants and non-certificants (Byrne, Valentine, & Carter, 2004; Niebuhr, 1994).
Finally, the general public can be a stakeholder for a certification body. As potential consumers of a certificant‘s goods and services, the public serves as the ultimate arbiter of certification value in some industries. Recently, more organizations have recognized this role of the public and have marketed specifically toward consumers. The campaigns for the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) at www.letsmakeaplan.org and the public campaign for the Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN) at www.oncc.org/Patients are two examples. Public stakeholders have similar values as governmental and regulatory entities, namely looking for better professional performance and, thus, better service for the consumer.
While additional value factors can apply to each of the groups outlined above, the value factors noted are those most typically associated with the stakeholders. That said, each certification body will need to research the specific value factors required and prioritize stakeholder groups for their certification, which is covered in the next section.
VoC Research Process
The research process for VoC is much like the process for any other research study: a problem is formulated, methodology selected, data collected and analyzed, and the results understood in the context of the original theoretical proposition (Bernard, 2013).
Figure 2. VoC Research Process Stages
Once an organization has analyzed the types of stakeholders involved in its certification market, it will be important to determine the focus on the VoC study. There are multiple types of VoC research studies, and narrowing the focus of the study will improve the validity of results. Much of the existing literature in VoC research has focused on perceived value or verifiable (tangible) benefits of certification. These are the first two research types: determining the value that stakeholders perceive in the certification, which can include intrinsic and extrinsic factors, and determining the verifiable benefits of certification. For an example of the second study type, one need only to look at the myriad of salary surveys examining salary of certificants versus non-certificants (e.g., Payscale, 2012; PMI, 2013).
Other studies have attempted to look at actual knowledge and/or behavioral differences between certificants and non-certificants. Few examples of these studies exist due to the difficulty of attributing such differences to the certification itself. Organizations must also be willing to deal with the consequences of a study that finds that there are no differences between certificant and non-certificant, a result that has surfaced in previous VoC research (Cegielski, Rebman, & Reithel, 2003).
An alternative method of describing the types of VoC studies was proposed by Knapp and Associates (2012), who aligned studies in six categories:
influence on stakeholder behavior
demonstration of expected knowledge/behavior on the job behavioral differences exhibited by certificants
demonstrable impact on business goals return on investment
Several alternative types of or perspectives on these research questions can be taken.
Understanding the role of certifications in a broader educational context is important. It is critical to understand not only the value of certification but also its value compared to educational degrees, certificate programs, training courses taken alone, and other types of educational accomplishments (Cohen, 2012). This is particularly critical in industries where certification can substitute for educational degrees, such as Information Technology (Quan, Dattero, & Galup, 2007).
Another potential aspect to the research question for VoC may be what is holding
non-certificants back from seeking certification, or why expired non-certificants let their certification lapse. While some reasons given will inevitably relate to cost, most will relate to lack of reward
(Prowant, Niebuhr, & Biel, 2007).
Once a research question has been established, methods to answer this question can be identified. A number of different approaches exist, some of which will be covered here.
Determining a methodology should involve consultation with research methodology experts and VoC consultants, if such knowledge does not exist internally at the certification body.
Individual Interviews: Interviews are frequently effective in determining value indicators from stakeholders who are not easily contacted through other methods. For example, organizational executives typically do not respond to surveys, nor are they readily available to complete surveys. Similarly, representatives from governmental or regulatory agencies may also be optimally reached through interviews. A script should be used to promote reliability between interviews. Interviews best answer questions on perceived value, although you can use other research methods to gather supplemental data.
Focus Groups: Focus groups provide an opportunity for the certification body to gain any stakeholder group‘s reactions to a scripted set of prompts. Again, use a script or protocol for the
focus group to ensure reliability, particularly if you have multiple focus groups (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). Focus groups are best used to answer perceived value questions; however, focus group data can also supplement other data types.
Observation: Observation can capture behavioral differences between certificants and non-certificants. You can also use observation to watch for differences in how certificants behave or how they are treated in the workplace. While observation can be a powerful technique, it is also quite labor intensive.
Case Studies: Case studies can demonstrate individual stories of certification value (or lack thereof). Case studies are most effective in performing exploratory research to determine what value indicators may exist within stakeholder groups and, typically, should be followed with additional research.
Surveys: Surveys are the most commonly used VoC method. Surveys can answer a variety of VoC research questions, depending on the overall methodology. For example, you can use surveys to gather self-reported salary data to create a salary survey as it pertains to
certification. Alternatively, surveys can discover VoC benefits.
Literature Reviews or Artifact Research: You can also examine existing literature or gather artifacts from stakeholders to answer research questions. For example, you could gather salary information directly from organizations that employ certificants (to eliminate self-report bias).
Certificants are typically accessed easily by the certification body and can be contacted directly. However, hiring managers may need to first be referred to the certification body by certificants, which presents issues for ensuring a valid sample has been obtained. VoC researchers should consider using incentives where appropriate to gain access to a sufficient and representative sample.
Data Collection and Analysis
Data collection approaches will be determined by the research method used, as will analysis techniques. For quantitative data, statistical analysis – particularly inferential statistics – will be used to determine the degree of and differences in value indicators. For qualitative data, a theoretical analysis method should be chosen (e.g., Ground Theory; Phenomenology) before examining the data to look for recurrent themes and relationships until saturation is observed.
After the data is analyzed, it will require interpretation. By extracting meaning and understanding the context of the data, the research will better identify the relationships between value factors. Finally, after interpretation, the data will need to be reported. Study results should be reported both internally and externally. Results should be transparently reported to better promote acceptance and use by stakeholders. If possible, results should also be reported in the certification community to promote continued evolution in VoC research approaches.
Now that a VoC study has been completed, how will the certification body use it? Value-based marketing is an approach to marketing that believes value statements are central to the
marketing message (Doyle, 2000). There are many ways to illustrate this value through formal and informal marketing; this section will illustrate a process to market this information.
Marketing mix is based on a model by Lauterborn (1990), who theorized the 4C‘s: consumer, cost, communication, and convenience. Consumer focuses on selling what the consumer wants to buy, cost includes the product/service price plus associated factors that may result in
additional cost to the consumer, communication focuses on two-way messaging between buyer and seller, and convenience refers to how consumers prefer to make their purchase.
How does this pertain to VoC and certification marketing? When incorporating value into your marketing and communications, it is critical to examine how VoC can affect every aspect of the marketing mix. VoC speaks directly to the first ―C‖ by addressing what the consumer wants to buy. Accordingly, these messages should be delivered as the certification body learns more about what certain stakeholder groups value. Understanding cost is critical, as price is
frequently cited by non-certificants as an impediment to certification. However, when pressed, this cost is typically not limited to the price of the certification but also includes the certification study materials, time away from work, time away from family, and other related expenses. Communication is critical, as keeping channels open for two-way messaging around value is essential. Many times, the responses from certificants best illustrate the value statement the certification body begins promoting. Finally, convenience becomes critical to the VoC process, as it also includes how easily consumers can find information regarding certification, including VoC information.
Before embarking on a marketing and communication campaign for VoC, it is critical to step back and examine certification and value information from these points of view. Accordingly, such consideration will make the VoC communications that much more effective.
Just as the VoC process started with defining stakeholders, so should the marketing process start by identifying target markets. These markets parallel those discussed in the previous stakeholder exercise; however, the markets may need to be narrowed. For example, it is highly unlikely that a certification marketing campaign would target all non-certified practitioners; rather, they would be more likely to target all non-certificants working in certain relevant industries and positions. Similarly, marketing campaigns may not target all hiring managers; instead, they may focus on hiring managers working in organizations with higher revenue. These parameters should be based on the value factors that have been attributed to these groups and the potential to convert these markets.
Message Development and Marketing Channels
One, the study results should be published in a transparent manner for public consumption. This shows an open approach that builds goodwill among stakeholders. Second, the study‘s most compelling results should be packaged for dissemination. These results will need to be threaded through a set of publications, online messaging, newsletters, social media posts, and
presentations by the certification body‘s staff—any location where a target market can be reached. It will be critical to remember that ―rule of five‖ with this messaging, namely that it will take at least five exposures for the value messaging to stick (Doyle, 2000). Both of these paths will use marketing messages: the key points that the organization wants to highlight from the study, packaged for specific stakeholder groups.
Traditionally, groups have used statistics gathered from a study (e.g., 68% of certificants reported an increase in salary). While these statistics are valuable, such messaging is insufficiently compelling for many stakeholders. Such statistics-based messaging should be supplemented with more novel and persuasive information. Where possible, creative approaches to presenting these statistics, such as graphics, data visualization, and
infographics, should be used. Data visualization specialists can assist with determining potential approaches. That said, these statistics remain important for certain types of stakeholders. Certification bodies should avoid overloading stakeholders with information by sticking to a defined set of points.
A successful tool used increasingly by certification bodies is demonstrating the value of certifications through their certificants‘ stories. By showing how the certificate holder has evolved professionally and how certification has been part of that equation, VoC is taken beyond the concept to tangible stories that resonate with stakeholders. An illustration of this technique is the HR Certification Institute‘s Certified magazine. This magazine tells certificant stories in the context of organizations that rely on HR for their success (see
Similar to this technique is the creation of case studies showing how certification has affected an organization. Such case studies are highly effective when reaching out to hiring managers, organizational leaders, and HR practitioners. An example of this technique can be found in the case studies used by many consulting organizations, illustrating how a customer has realized value through their services.
Another way to create value and recognition among other stakeholders is by creating tools that allow certificants to celebrate their certifications. Groups typically acknowledge certification with a certificate, but creating other recognition tools, such as communication with certificant
managers and recognition events, will increase value for certificants while increasing stakeholder appreciation for the credential (Shirey, 2005).
While these are just a few of the ideas for how to package and message VoC data, it is equally important to consider the channels that you will use to disseminate this information. It is critical to use a variety of channels to spread VoC messaging and reinforce these messages. Potential channels to consider are listed below; however, this is an incomplete list, and it will vary
Figure 3. Potential marketing channels by estimated cost per user
Regardless of the channels chosen, it is important to ensure that value messaging continues over the long term (Knapp & Associates, 2012), that you update it on an appropriate schedule, and that you maintain a multichannel distribution methodology.
This white paper has defined VoC in its various forms, discussed the importance of
understanding stakeholders, explained the VoC research process, and reviewed the process of disseminating the VoC results. Above all, it is critical for certification owners to understand how to answer the stakeholder questions of ―What‘s in it for me?‖, ―Why is the certification better than competing products?‖, and ―Why should I believe you?‖ (Eatchel, Straehle, & McCorkle, 2013). By answering these questions using VoC data and messaging, the certification body will be able to demonstrate the value of its products to potential certificants and other stakeholders. This demonstration of value is a critical element for any certification body to grow and maintain market share. More cost/user •Traditional PR •Business development •Lead generation •Web marketing
•Trade or industry magazines •Videos (online distribution or
otherwise) •Radio •TV Less cost/user •Social media •E-mail campaigns •Blogs •Online advertisements
•Newsletters and online magazines •Search engine optimization (SEO) •Search engine marketing (SEM) •Personalized URL (PURL)
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A summary of the credentialing bodies or member associations involved in the research reviewed here is included below, along with the article that mentions the organization.
Research concerning a field conducted by professionals not associated with the credentialing body is not included. While many more organizations have conducted such research, many are not published and, thus, cannot be provided.
American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACCN) – Fitzpatrick, Campo, Graham, & Lavandero, 2010
American Board of Nursing Specialties (ABNS) – Prowant, Niebuhr, & Biel, 2007 Competency and Credentialing Institute (CCI) – Byrne, Valentine, & Carter, 2004 Microsoft – Microsoft, 2007
Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC) – Brown, Murphy, Norton, Baldwin, & Ponto, 2010