Professional Associations are leveraging the power of digital badges to assert and retain their relevance and value as the ‘single source of professional truth’ in an increasingly open and networked world.

Digital badges are providing Associations with greater control over professional development and membership status, while offering members a valuable new way to rapidly and widely communicate their professional standing that is easily verifiable and not ‘self-proclaimed’.

For consumers of services provided by a professional body and it’s members, trust is heightened, risk is lowered, and confidence increases when end-users can instantly verify a digital badge ‘trustmark’, and that can only be good for all parties involved.

Professional Associations exist to represent, protect and develop members. They offer ongoing education & training – building on the value of tertiary education, and provide information to guide and protect the general public engaging with, or relying on, services offered by members or by the Association itself.

Building community trust, furthering specialist knowledge, and promoting best practice are key enabling strategies at the heart of Association activity, and they all rely on the active contribution of a vibrant and growing member base to succeed.

While these fundamental goals and base strategies remain constant, the tools and techniques available to fulfil this universal Association charter are changing dramatically.

Social media and online professional networks enable – on a global scale – knowledge sharing, ideas exchange, and collaboration, bringing new growth and energy.

On the flip-side, new media engagement strategies have also challenged the capacity of peak bodies to regulate, moderate, and generally retain the centralised authority needed to govern professional practice.

In open communication networks, everyone’s an ‘expert’ and it’s increasingly difficult to locate a professional single source of truth.  On this measure alone, Associations and Peak Industry Bodies are more necessary, relevant and valuable than ever.

One strategy increasingly engaged by Professional Associations to harness the power of global online networks, while retaining relevance and a growing member base, is to offer digital badges to enshrine and communicate membership status, confirm professional development standards, and carry their brand into targeted sectors.

Digital badges offer significant benefits to professional bodies and their members, and they are equally valuable to the consumers of products and services offered by members.

Here are six key reasons why they are such powerful tools engaged in the development of the new workforce.

Digital badges are:

  • a highly secure, shareable form of endorsement.
  • a data-rich store of summary information about a member’s capability that tells consumers far more than traditional forms of endorsement and certification.
  • third-party-issued to avoid the challenges presented by CV ‘self-proclamation’
  • align-able in highly visible professional development sequences to boost member engagement and retention
  • powerful Association ‘brand vehicles’ that deliver consistent messages into key target sectors
  • trackable, providing valuable insights into member and consumer interests

It is worth elaborating on the key benefits from the perspective of each stakeholder group.

The Professional Association

Digital credentials created and issued by an Association are owned by that Association. They may live with the recipient (earner), but they are verified and validated by the issuing body.

With ownership comes new levels of control and improved opportunities to build relevance and value with each new digital badge offered to members. No longer does an Association have to rely on members ‘self-proclaiming’ their professional standing; they can effectively standardise and govern via a locked down digital badge classification system.

Once issued, Associations can monitor and track how members share and generally leverage the value of their badges, which provides rich evidence to design new CPD programs, to fine-tune existing training, or to measure program value.

In addition to trackability, digital badges can be time-limited, revoked, and curated in stackable collections that match sequential professional development pathways and membership status.

An excellent – and very large – example of a digital credential program in action is offered by the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants (AICPA). The AICPA is the world’s largest member association representing the accounting profession. It’s history of serving the public interest stretches back to 1887. Today, the AICPA has 429,000+ members in 122 countries and territories, representing many areas of practice, including business and industry, public practice, government, education and consulting.

Digital credentials have now largely replaced paper certifications at AICPA.

Another more recent digital credentialing program has been launched in the UK by The Association for Project Management – the chartered body for the project profession – with a similar strategic vision.

Because digital badges contain ‘locked down’ quality standards and earning criteria, Associations not only have a powerful new tool to build community trust, but a highly targeted marketing tool to carry their brand and new ‘trustmark’ into their core target markets – every time their digital badge is shared.

Digital badges also allow Associations to clearly mark development pathways for members, encouraging active and ongoing professional development (and membership renewal).

As an engagement tool, digital credentials perform an important role in ensuring the long-term vitality and relevance of the issuing body.

The Association Member

Earning membership with a professional body is a great achievement, and it often marks the beginning of a career-long education and development process that underpins a successful professional life.

By sharing high value digital credentials that have been bestowed by a well-regarded body, individuals can define their professional value more fully, and can more easily win the trust of those that rely on that individual’s skills and knowledge.

In essence, digital badges issued by professional bodies are a ‘currency’ that can be invested by individual members to build solid business value.

The Community

For those in the market for professional services, the buying process usually starts with a search for a reliable provider. Often a provider is referred by another professional, or by a friend or colleague.

Regardless of the source of the recommended provider, most people check the quality of the provider, and conduct basic due diligence research, by looking for endorsement from the relevant Professional Association to confirm the provider’s professional standing and competency.

The greater the value of the service, or higher the risk of making the wrong choice, the more research and checking is undertaken.

A verifiable digital credential ‘trustmark’ bestowed by a respected third party – such as a Professional Association or registering authority – goes a long way to satisfying a potential consumer’s desire to protect their investment or minimise risk when choosing services or products.

Closing the Skills Gap

Clar Russo, MA, the Executive Vice President of Engagement & Learning Innovation at AICPA, is an early adopter and thought leader in digital badge application in the Professional Association space. Clar notes that when the AICPA program was conceived, the initiative sought to “maximise the value of our training program to our members and to ensure that, once trained, those members are empowered to communicate their knowledge and skills to the public as effectively as possible.”

Rosso says that the AICPA intends to expand the digital badging program across all of the AICPA’s continuing education programming.

“We have always been committed to helping our members advance their careers. Digital badges allow them to showcase their abilities in a transparent, verified way to a far wider audience than would otherwise be possible.”

As digital credential technology gains traction in Professional Associations, the key benefits of security, portability, and trackability are driving new applications. Collaborations between employers, higher education institutions and Associations to co-design and co-endorse badged development programs are effectively addressing ‘the skills gap’ by encouraging lifelong learning in the areas where it is most needed.

If building community trust, furthering specialist knowledge, and promoting best practice are key enabling strategies at the heart of Association activity, then digital badges are a powerful tool to ensure the ongoing value of Professional Associations and to build a vibrant and growing member base.