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Communications of the ACM

Sharing Standards: IT Skills Standards


The team needs another expert programmer, but the pool of available people includes no one with such expertise. So the team hires someone who is prepared to learn on the job. How many times is this story re-enacted every day in advanced societies? Would these societies allow such a situation to continue, if the team were looking for, say, a heart surgeon?

Hundreds of thousands of information technology jobs go unfilled due to a lack of adequately skilled people to fill them. What are these skills and how can someone demonstrate mastery of them?

Standards exist for IT products and for processes of developing IT. What about the standardization of skills? Skill standards provide workers and students with clear benchmarks leading to skilled, high-paying jobs of the future. Who develops skill standards and what should they be? And who determines whether the skill has been achieved?

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Skilled Workers Vs. Professionals

Skills are typically associated with limited, passive roles. The effectiveness of a skilled worker can be characterized by how well the worker performs a list of individual tasks. In the professional model, technical and academic skills are the foundation for more complex general functions such as problem-solving skills or using judgement. Thus, tasks are the end activity for nonprofessional workers, while for the professional, tasks are necessary but not sufficient to perform the broader core activities of the occupation. Given this distinction, those who develop standards based on the skill model need merely list a set of domain-free skills. Those who are developing standards following the professional model must supply more context for the work performed and describe the kinds of interactions that occur among individuals involved in the work process.

The distinction between skill and profession has unfortunate side effects. Educational research shows the pedagogical benefits of linking structured work experience to academic or classroom work. Likewise, workplace improvements may occur when production workers formerly engaged in routine tasks initiated and directed by their superiors are given more responsibility to solve problems, make improvements in workplace procedures, and engage actively with their co-workers Further information about skills versus professions can be found in "A Conceptual Framework for Industry-Based Skill Standards," (D. Merritt at ncrve.berkeley.edu/CenterFocus/CF11.html.)

The developers of skill standards have short-term and long-term goals. The short-term goal is to improve the information available to students, prospective job applicants, and employers. A set of skill standards for a relevant occupation will let employers know more about what job applicants can do, and tell students what types of skills they need to acquire to be eligible for particular jobs or occupations. However, if skill standards are to contribute to a broad reform of school and workplace environments, employers must be convinced that their workers need new types of skills. Skill standards should incorporate the professional model. Schools must have the capacity to educate students to these broader, more sophisticated standards. Ultimately, the proper combination of skilled and professional education helps move workplaces towards high-performance work systems.

The computer-products field changes quickly, and standardized skills would do well to be more general than those tied to a particular commercial product. While many academics would say that a spreadsheet is a fairly simple example of a computer application students should learn in passing rather than be specifically taught, one can imagine a standardized skill on the topic of spreadsheets. This skill would not be tied to a particular product, such as Lotus 1-2-3 or Excel. Rather, the skill would emphasize the mathematical principles behind a spreadsheet's computations, the human-computer interface that facilitates entering values and expressing formulas, and the connections to external sources of data.

A spectrum of skills and knowledge is required of information technologists. How can one demonstrate one's skills and knowledge to an employer? In today's IT field the dominant methods of demonstration involve work experience, degrees from educational institutions, or product-based certificates. To certify is to attest as meeting a standard, and in the educational arena, a certificate is a document certifying that one has fulfilled the requirements of a field. A degree is, in fact, a kind of certificate. To accredit means to recognize as conforming with a standard, specifically to recognize an educational institution as maintaining standards that qualify the graduates for admission to more specialized institutions or for professional practice.

The accreditation of a school is the certification that the school conforms to some process standard. Students then are certified by the school through the granting of degrees.

The goal in IT is not to produce standards of the sort that might apply to, say, welders who can perform stainless-steel welding tasks. An information technologist may be expected to have about 40 separate IT skills.

An information technologist studies, designs, develops, implements, supports, or manages computer-based information systems, particularly software applications and computer hardware. IT workers help to ensure that computers work well for people. How are the computer science skill standards defined and certified?

The Computing Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB) operates in the U.S. to certify computer science bachelor's degrees. CSAB (www1.acm.org/~csab) is sponsored by the ACM and the IEEE Computer Society. By 2000, CSAB will have integrated its operations with the Accreditation Board for Engineers and Technology and the new organization will seek to widen its certification activities across the IT field.

CSAB provides a curriculum design that is mandatory for students who are to earn a bachelor's degree in computer science. It also specifies school administrative policies.

The CSAB curriculum is based on U.S. practice. The bachelor's degree curriculum is required to have a large number of liberal-arts courses, whereas in some countries this requirement would have been satisfied prior to the post-secondary education level. The computer science core of the curriculum must provide basic coverage of algorithms, data structures, software design, concepts of programming languages, and computer organization and architecture. Theoretical foundations, analysis, and design must be stressed in this part of the curriculum.

Qualified instructors other than full-time faculty may be used in a supplemental role, but full-time faculty must oversee all course work and should cover at least 70% of total classroom instruction.

A program must have substantial resources before it can meet the CSAB criteria. To earn accreditation, a school must first supply extensive documentation of its processes. The school must also host an on-site evaluation by a team of academic peers recruited by CSAB. To maintain accreditation, the school must repeat such a procedure every few years.

Some employers prefer to hire students from accredited schools. However, exceptions abound. Some of the best computer science schools in the U.S., for example Stanford University and Carnegie-Mellon University, are not CSAB-accredited.

CSAB criteria are designed to maintain traditional classroom computer science education. Schools, not students, are certified as being CSAB-compliant.

The number of graduates from CSAB-accredited schools has not increased over the past decade despite the enormous increase in demand for students with such an education. Perhaps other internationally recognized standards are needed, standards that would be internationally recognized, and that would apply to students and not institutions. Why not allow a student to directly seek certification as a computer scientist?

This is not to say only certified computer scientists could be employed to do computer science work. Rather, the goal is to have more options. For instance, in the U.S. the individual states authorize professional engineer examinations. A graduate engineer has the option of taking a professional engineer examination and becoming certified as a professional engineer. In the U.S. these exams and certifications are administered by state governments. Perhaps there should be a comparable professional computer scientist qualification administered in the same manner.

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The Role of Governments

Due to the importance of IT and the shortage of adequately educated people, governments are taking a more active role in this arena. Efforts funded by the U.S. government and the New Zealand government are representative. Comparable efforts are under way in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere.

In the U.S., with funding from the American National Science Foundation, the Northwest Center for Emerging Technologies (nwcet.bcc.ctc.edu) has produced a 200-page document entitled, Building a Foundation for Tomorrow: Skills Standards for Information Technology. The Center worked with many industry and academic representatives to ensure that IT skills standards would be consistent with the best practices of industry and academia. Some of the identified IT positions include database administration associate, information systems analyst, interactive digital media specialist, network specialist, programmer, software engineer, technical support representative, and technical writer.


To certify is to attest as meeting a standard, and in the educational arena, a certificate is a document certifying that one has fulfilled the requirements of a field.


For each skill, job functions are specified. For example, job functions of the programmer include analysis, design, development, testing, implementation, project management, and task management. By way of example, the development function creates or modifies new or existing system interfaces, code, or datasets. Each of these development functions is, in turn, further described in terms of performance criteria, technical knowledge, and personal qualities.

To further encourage businesses and educators to pay attention to skills standards, the U.S. Congress created the National Skills Standard Board (NSSB) in 1994. NSSB (see www.nssb.org) has funded discussions among businesses, educators, and government. Ultimately, the goals of NSSB are to improve competitiveness in the global economy and to raise the standard of living of workers by improving access to highly skilled, high-wage career opportunities.

NSSB has placed computing and telecommunications in a cluster called "Communications." Computing and telecommunications are subsets of IT. Other areas in the Communications cluster are music, art, and photography. NSSB's intention is to develop a core set of competencies and skills standards common to the cluster. However, IT skills require more mathematics and science than typically associated with the arts. The placing of IT skills in the Communications cluster may or may not be appropriate. How far NSSB will progress with the development of useful IT skills standards remains to be seen.

In 1998 NSSB signed an agreement with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). ANSI is the only accreditor of U.S. standards developing organizations that uses an open and consensus-based standards development process. NSSB will recognize ANSI's existing voluntary consensus standards process as an approved means to develop skills standards. Certification of conformance with NSSB standards remains to be addressed.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority (www.nzqa.govt.nz), established in 1990, is a government agency responsible for standards for educational qualifications. It also produces policies and criteria for accrediting educational institutions. The standards are built through a consensus process. Standards are drafted by expert groups and then circulated widely for comment and contribution. Once standards are agreed on and registered, they are subject to review on a regular basis. This allows for standards to be refined and updated over time.

Each registered standard has a defined credit value and a specified level. Credits may be accumulated from different learning institutions or workplaces towards a single qualification. All organizations accredited to assess against standards recognize credits awarded by others.

The education standards are organized into eight levels of progression. Levels 1 to 3 correspond to senior secondary education and basic trade training. Levels 4 to 6 refer to advanced trades, technical, and business qualifications. Levels 7 and 8 are advanced qualifications of graduate and postgraduate standard.

There are three types of qualifications:

  • National certificates—at all levels but normally found at levels 1–4,
  • National diplomas—at levels 5 and up, and
  • Degrees at levels 7 and 8.

An example of a standard developed by the New Zealand Qualifications Authority is the standard for a multimedia software engineer. This role performs 13 functions.

Details are provided for each of the 13 functions. For instance, creating animation for a multimedia computer application requires reviewing requirements for animation for a multimedia computer application, defining styles, creating entities, defining storyboards, and generating animations for a multimedia computer application.

The New Zealand Qualifications Authority produces standards to which educational and training organizations can work. The Authority will accredit organizations that comply with its standards. However, unlike the other organizations described thus far, the New Zealand Qualifications Authority also produces national qualifying examinations that are given to students to test their skills and knowledge. The awarding of certificates, diplomas, or degrees is done by accredited institutions that follow the Authority's standards for assessment.

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Industry

Industries are involved in standardizing and certifying skills for a host of reasons. A company that teaches about its products might increase its market share. An industry that wants uniformity of skills may support standardization of skills—the health care industry is a good example of this.

The health care industry has more standardized skills than the IT industry. What might be learned from the health care industry and applied to the IT industry?

Skills standards exist for various levels of nursing, for radiologists, for occupational therapists, for physicians in every branch of medicine and surgery, and so on. Without continuing education and successful re-examination, a person may lose a health care skill certification. Various government, industry, and academic organizations are involved in the definition and certification of health care skills standards.

Traditionally, health care skill certification systems relied heavily on written examinations that used multiple choice questions. Direct evidence of performance was not typically a large part of the examination, but it was part of the eligibility requirements to take the certification examination. For example, to be eligible to take the written examination for certification, radiology and dental laboratory technician candidates must first have successfully completed a prescribed number of hours of clinical work and to have this verified by their supervisors.

Since the 1960s, the health professions have worked on developing performance-based assessments that both emphasize real-world context and require examinees to develop and construct a response rather than relying on multiple choice exams. Performance-based assessment methods include written or computer-based clinical simulations, oral examinations, and the use of "standardized patients" (in which non-examinees are trained to portray patients and the examinee is asked to show how he or she interacts with each patient). Health care skills standards and their assessment are very extensive and intensive.

IT skills standards can be specific to health care. For instance, one health care consortium has defined health care IT skills in five areas—analysis, abstracting and coding, information systems, documentation, and operation. Each area is defined in great detail. By example, a "documentation" person will categorize and prioritize health information requests; create, route, and mail correspondence regarding medical records; and perform admission, discharge, and transfer functions. In every industry, such as finance, manufacturing, and retail, IT skills standards specific to that industry may be developed.

More than one million IT professionals trained for Microsoft skills in 1997, and more than 100,000 earned Microsoft skills certification (www.microsoft.com/train_cert/). The skill standards are defined by Microsoft, and delivery of training and certification is brokered by Microsoft.

In developing its skill standards, Microsoft follows a systematic approach to the study of what people want and need to know. The standards are based on a job analysis and objectives definition:

  • The job analysis is a breakdown of all tasks that make up a specific job function, based on tasks performed by people who are currently performing that job function.
  • The development of objectives involves translating these job tasks into a comprehensive set of more specific and measurable knowledge, skills, and abilities.

One health care consortium has defined health care IT skills in five areas—analysis, abstracting and coding, information systems, documentation, and operation.


The resulting list of objectives is the basis for the development of both the certification exams and the training materials.

Microsoft focuses on quality control over the certification exam. Microsoft is not in the business of training but relies almost exclusively on other organizations to provide the training. Microsoft has developed a certification process for trainers themselves, but people wishing to be certified are not required to have studied under any particular regimen. The exams themselves are administered by organizations on contract with Microsoft, currently Sylvan Prometric and Virtual University Enterprises. Microsoft operates as a broker that helps students connect with trainers or with examiners for certification.

Many IT companies have training and certification programs. Providing such programs may contribute to a company's hold on market share. Novell Corporation produces computer networking products and educates people about those products. Its networking skills certificates are highly valued in the marketplace. The motivation behind the skills certification program is well captured in this quote from the Novell Web site: "Novell Education's mission is to drive global pervasive computing through quality education programs and products; its purpose is to increase literacy on Novell products and technologies and thereby foster Novell's success worldwide. Novell Education plays a critical role in providing true pervasive computing by building the infrastructure of support and literacy that is necessary to drive and sustain that vision."

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The Future

In IT the certification of individuals has not reached the level of sophistication and detail that it has in health care. At least two different explanations exist for this difference: IT education changes too quickly to be effectively standardized, and educators do not adequately appreciate the importance of IT education. While IT changes very quickly, the standards for the skill or knowledge of an individual can be oriented to slower changing principles so that the standard retains value over time.

What about the importance of IT education in the eyes of educators? When someone is sick and seeks health care, that person wants the care to come from a certified health care practitioner. IT does not currently have that same importance to people. However, the ramifications of IT for the health of society are so great that more needs to be done about IT education.

While each industry may develop industry-specific IT skills standards, core IT skills themselves constitute an enormous area in need of further elaboration. The development of IT skills standards might follow a path similar to that of the health care sector. Schools of nursing, medicine, pharmacy, allied health science, and related fields are supported by the state and industry, and each comes with its own well-established and carefully assessed competencies. A comparable growth and refinement of IT education and training might be anticipated.

Any system of skill standards requires careful attention to both the definition of standards and to their assessment and certification. If a student's hard-earned certification is not useful to an employer and thus the student is not rewarded for earning it, then other students will not want to earn the certificate. Success of IT skills standards hinges on the ability of employers, students, and educators to be sensitive to one another's needs and to work closely together.

Current and potential IT workers should be able to strive for educational achievements that can be assessed and certified and that will be meaningful to employers. A successful IT skills program may bring more resources into IT education and support the growth of the IT workforce.

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Author

Roy Rada (rrada@pace.edu) is a co-director of the Center for Distance Education in the School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Pace University in White Plains, New York.


©1999 ACM  0002-0782/99/0400  $5.00

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