Esri, the global market leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, location intelligence, and mapping, introduced their technical certification program in 2009. In recent years, the Esri certification team launched an extensive redesign effort to validate the program’s continued ability to meet stakeholder expectations.

Founded in 1969, Esri attributes its decades of success to adhering to their core value of listening to and concentrating on customer needs. In an interview with Inc. Magazine, Esri President Jack Dangermond, stated, “Customers notice that we are actually here to support them. And their needs help us innovate.”

For Aaron Zureick, Esri Global Training Program Manager, and Jessi Mielke, Esri Certification Program Manager, initiating the certification program redesign was an example of how they advance Esri’s principles by listening to and supporting the needs of their stakeholders, who include Esri customers, distributors, business partners, and employees.

“In 2016, the program growth was not meeting our target and our team was struggling to meet exam development milestones,” said Zureick.

“Building a single program that meets the needs of our diverse certification audience is a challenge,” added Mielke. “When the program launched, we wanted to serve all candidate audiences and represent many Esri products. However, as the program grew, we received feedback about hurdles to adoption and engagement. There was a clear need to reevaluate our program design.”

The Versioning Challenge

In 2016, Esri offered nine core exams across three domains. Their certifications and underlying exam development schedule were based on software versions. Version-based certifications made sense in 2009 when Esri completed its initial program design work. Over time, the accelerating pace of software releases that covered multiple products, each with different versioning, created numerous challenges that affected certification program adoption as well as test development and maintenance. 

“Due to the rapidly moving product life cycle,” Mielke added, “we found ourselves in a constant state of catchup, trying to meet the demands of non-stop exam development. Our exams have always been, and will always be, developed with rigor and quality. We realized we had numerous inefficiencies due to the flurry of exam development activities.  

“Also, because our certifications were version-based, we did not have expiration dates or recertification requirements,”explained Mielke.“We assumed candidates would earn new certifications as versions were released, but we could not easily communicate when the next exam launch would be. It was difficult for candidates to know when and how to engage.”

Listening and Learning to Find Solutions

As Esri considered the complex set of decisions they needed to make to address their challenges, they reached out to Alpine Testing Solutions for help with a formal program redesign initiative. This initiative incorporated the original design elements successfully created between Alpine and Esri in 2009 and validated them against existing program needs.

“We wanted to remain true to the original program design where it made sense,” said Mielke. “But it was critical to step back, look at the program holistically, and evaluate whether the program was still meeting the needs of our certification audience.”

The program redesign initiative included numerous participants in a strategic, two-day workshop facilitated by Alpine. “We included individuals who had participated in the initial program design and others who had not. Some had very limited understanding of the program, which generated productive conversations and new considerations for the group,”said Mielke. 

“An extremely valuable benefit of the Alpine-facilitated workshop was the number of lightbulbs that went off with both new and incumbent participants regarding the goal and value of becoming certified. For many it was a learning experience as they realized that there is a specific, trusted and rigorous, industry-wide, exam development process that must be employed to build high-quality, sustainable exams.

“Participants were intrigued and educated. As they saw the value and rationale for required rigor, they became program champions and advocates, internally and externally,” she continued.

Esri proposed changes based on insight gained from the redesign workshop and vetted them with a small but representative sampling of their certification audiences. “Through our ‘sanity check’ during the program redesign, we validated that the initial goals from 2009 were still pertinent and had not changed,” shared Mielke. “What did need to change was how we pursue accomplishing those goals.”

“The program redesign initiative reinforced the need to refine, refocus, and stop tying exams to specific software versions,” said Zureick. “It also forced us to thoroughly evaluate our processes,” he added.

“We’ve shifted away from constant exam development and now develop and release exams every 18 to 24 months. This time-based approach gives us a solid cadence to strategize exam content and plan development activities.”

Mielke added, “Our focus is much more targeted.”

Reengaging Key Audiences

Esri now offers specialty exams, including developer-focused specialties. Prior to the redesign, their developer domain exams had low adoption because candidates were funneled into core exams that included a significant amount of content outside of what developers needed.

Introducing specialty exams also created a new opportunity to engage with Esri’s business partners. The Esri Partner Program offers specialty designations, and by adopting specialty certifications,business partners can achieve additional capability-based designations.

“We now have more opportunities to talk to our business partners about how certification benefits their organizations and how we can support them. We’ve forged a new bond with them,” said Mielke.

 Zureick says that communicating the value of a certification program can be challenging at times.

“We’re focused on showcasing the value that certifications bring to both individuals and organizations. As the certification world is growing in the micro-credentialing space, we are pushing as hard as we can to make it possible for people to differentiate themselves,” he stated.

Esri has launched a Certification Success Stories Gallery where individuals can share their personal certification stories. Spotlighting and generating advocates is a key part of communicating certification value. People who share their stories are typically strong advocates for Esri.  

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Summing up the redesign initiative, Zureick concluded,“The redesign highlighted program challenges that we knew existed, including SME recruitment and candidate depth of understanding and preparation for high-stakes exams. We’ve listened and now we know what to improve during the next round of exam development. A major highlight is that the redesign has been instrumental in significantly increasing program adoption!”

Mielke added,“The redesign prompted us to share a lot of program messaging, which has created a renewed and genuine interest in certification. We’re moving forward smarter while staying true to the original program intent.”

Esri’s program is growing and gaining positive traction as Esri’s leadership maintains their constant focus on the core value of listening to the needs of customers. They’re confident that this approach, with its deep roots in the company’s culture, will help them continue to foster innovation.