A Futurist’s View: On The Amazon Of Certifications

Written by Garth Jordan on April 18, 2019

Association leaders need to be futurists and makers. It’s that simple. We can no longer bask in the effervescent glow of 100 year-old business models and think our non-profit halos will protect us from massive disruption. It’s time to reinvent.

Get Nervous: Be Bold

If you’re not designing a new future for your association right now, someone somewhere is going to do it for you. For example, with Apple and Amazon aggressively entering the healthcare market in ways no one predicted less than 3 years ago (both delighting and scaring the bejeezus out of a $3.7 trillion U.S. health system), who is to say that the association industry won’t also experience a massively disruptive market entrant?

Feeling nervous? That’s a good thing! It means you’re paying attention to the world around you. Complacency and inertia are no longer options, regardless of their causes. If you’re feeling stuck due to company culture, your Board, lack of funding, or—- well, it doesn’t matter—- you’re a leader, you’re daring and spirited. Now is the time to stick your neck on the line and boldly design your organization’s future.

What If: Get Even More Nervous

I’ll explore a not-too-unfathomable “What If” scenario to emphasize my point.

  • What if a competitor to your association had relationships not only with ALL of your current members, but also almost every professional in your market?
  • What if that competitor also had purchasing relationships with all of your members’ employers?
  • What if that competitor also had a simple way to sell valuable certifications “in bulk” to your member’s employers?
  • What if that competitor offered a state-of-the-art online learning platform to deliver those certifications, making the learning experience easy and enjoyable?
  • And finally, what if that competitor used a highly-efficient methodology to keep its certifications up-to-date on a monthly basis?

Now brace yourself, take a seat, this may jolt you. There’s already a competitor out there who has dealt with the first 4 of these 5 bulleted questions. Let’s talk about a few facts:

  1. LinkedIn bought Lynda.com not too long ago. Now, LinkedIn Learning boasts thousands of courses from software development to general business and more.
  2. LinkedIn has relationships with tens of thousands of businesses through contracts with both LinkedIn Learning (for professional development) and LinkedIn for job postings. Their talent solutions revenue is growing rapidly (see graphs below).
  3. LinkedIn has thousands of free groups available to members. When it comes to my own organization, HFMA, our LinkedIn group has 58,000 members….that’s about 20,000 more members than the formal association. LinkedIn almost always will ‘know’ many more people in your industry than you do.
  4. LinkedIn Groups, not unlike association communities, generate their own cadre of intellectual property, discussions, document sharing, and other volunteer contributions.

If you happen to work for LinkedIn, please stop reading this article and close this window.

Certifications have long been the domain of associations. We have knowledge of our members, of the industry in which they work, and of the skills required to be the best professional possible. All of that intellectual property helps associations create valuable certifications and ‘own’ the certification market. But LinkedIn knows a lot of professionals and professions, too. They also have many, many specialty groups that could contribute to the development of a certification product line. And LinkedIn Learning has a rapidly growing distribution channel that could sell highly competitive, valuable, and easy to use and access certification programs - in bulk - direct to employers.

We are a few simple, strategic moves away from LinkedIn parlaying the pent-up intellectual engine of its groups, its online learning prowess, massive amounts of user data (demographic, behavioral and more), and its employer relationships into becoming The Amazon of Certifications. It may not be far-fetched to say that LinkedIn will pluck the massive certification market share out of the grasp of many associations.

Doomsday “What If” scenarios aside, if association leaders are not futurists, our industry will be negatively impacted – whether at the event-horizon or from disruptors taking dead-aim at our traditional way of doing business. In the above example with LinkedIn, we have to answer the question, “What does an Industry need?” with a more holistic value proposition beyond the needs of an individual profession. Isn’t that the type of question LinkedIn is answering without us? Acting independently may not be an option anymore.

What If: A Futurist’s Response

I’ll use the challenge of LinkedIn becoming The Amazon of Certifications to drive home a solution, perhaps belaboring the point that associations need to think and design their business models differently.

It’s no secret that U.S. Healthcare is disjointed. Reflecting that fact, there are dozens of professional associations that collectively offer a rangy list of certifications in various aspects of healthcare administration. With an admittedly fast and superficial review, I found 18 overlapping healthcare administration certifications being offered – and that’s only by non-profit organizations.

I imagine our industry is like many others where: association certifications overlap & run amok, quality is not guaranteed, pricing is unpredictable, bulk access sounds too good to be true, and learning experiences are not consistently tagged as #AwesomeSauce by customers. What’s more, the pool of people who might purchase certifications is limited and employers want better tools to train larger groups of staff (something most associations struggle with).

So I’ll say it out loud. The healthcare industry probably doesn’t need more organizations offering more certifications in healthcare administration. We need fewer. We need simplicity. The fragmented approach leaves a door open for The Amazon of Certifications to swoop in, and I imagine this challenge is not terribly different in other industries and professions. Someone somewhere, like LinkedIn, will figure out that certification fragmentation is a general Achilles’ Heel in many different industries and professions.

So how about this? What if associations in a similar industry gathered together to create their own Certification Consortium? Could that group of associations become the first Amazon of Certifications for a particular industry? Yes, I think so. It would require that group of associations to build a cooperative certification development and delivery model, but it’s entirely possible.

We can create our own place, where great associations can offer and update their certifications together, via a clearinghouse. A place where interdependent professionals and their employers can get access to the certifications they need – in bulk – with ease. A place where LinkedIn won’t be able to compete and kill off association certifications one-by-one. A place where companies (sometimes even our own business partners) stop making money off of distributing our intellectual property while adding little value to the certification product/experience itself.

Back To The Start

Generally, fragmentation is a weakness of our association business models. It creates a myopic view of the world with which for-profit disruptors like LinkedIn are not encumbered. If I was working for LinkedIn, I’d stop merrily chipping away at the association industry (as they have been for years) and instead, I’d power my way into the certification market, taking no prisoners.

Good thing I am neither a pirate, nor a LinkedIn employee. I’m one of the many that want associations to thrive.

We need association futurists who – in earnest – use human-centered design to create and build new business models that will thrive. It’s time to be bold. It’s our calling. It’s our future.

And if this motivates anyone to want to build The Amazon of Certifications with me, give me a holler on LinkedIn. Now, isn’t that ironic?