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Guide to digital badges for the workplace

Digital badges are becoming more common in the workplace. Here's how they can help HR during the hiring process and why some industry leaders have doubts.

The use of digital badges in the workplace is growing right along with the rapidly shifting hiring landscape.

More workers are job hopping within their organization or to new ones and HR teams may struggle to understand what skills a candidate brings to the position. Digital badges may offer a sort of common language for some of these issues.

What are digital badges?

A digital badge is a visual representation of a digital credential, which is a digital proof of skills and achievements. The metadata embedded in digital badges contain information such as the awarding organization and the date of completion. The metadata may also include whether the credential needs to be renewed through additional training and whether that has been achieved.

ISACA, an IT governance and training organization in Schaumburg, Ill., is one of the many companies now awarding digital badges.

"A digital badge is further proof someone has achieved a credential and maintained that credential," said Nader Qaimari, chief product officer at ISACA.

A digital badge holder can display a badge on social media sites, in emails and on electronic resumes.

"They allow people to more easily express that they've been certified to employers and to each other," said James Stanger, chief technology evangelist at CompTIA, which awards digital badges for its 13 certifications.

Organizations that award digital badges typically use a third-party platform to provide and manage the enabling technology.

Benefits of digital badges

Digital badges offer a number of potential advantages. Here are some of them:

  • Organizations can award workers for a range of achievements, from certifications to on-the-job accomplishments to niche talents and abilities. An organization can create digital badges for anything from mastery of a second language to successful approval of a patent application.
  • Workers can use digital badges to more easily track their skills and highlight their accomplishments.
  • Employers and organizations that award digital badges can use them as rewards and enticements for learning and development.
  • Digital badges may boost job seekers' skill portability and hiring teams' trust that a candidate has a particular skill.

Disadvantages of digital badges

Digital badges also come with some downsides. Here are some of those:

  • Recipients can continue to share digital badges even if they haven't kept up with required renewals and ongoing training. HR employees or others viewing the credentials must click on the badges and retrieve the accompanying metadata to learn this.
  • Digital badges' value could be diluted as the amount and kind of badges proliferates. In addition, some entities may offer badges for minor achievements and easily obtained accomplishments.

Use cases of digital badges in the workplace

Employers can use digital badges in a number of ways, especially in recruiting external candidates.

Employers can more easily close their workplace skills gaps if job candidates have badges. When HR departments search on LinkedIn for candidates with specific skills, they can more easily find unconventional candidates when profiles include badges. The workers may not have college degrees but have completed the equivalent level of work.

"An HR department looking to hire someone can quickly see the badges someone's earned by scanning something like LinkedIn," Qaimari said.

Of course, employers still need to do their due diligence when sorting through candidates, but digital badges "can save a lot of steps," he said.

However, many HR teams are cautious about putting too much faith in digital credentials for recruitment and retention, and are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Although about one-third of HR professionals said these credentials can factor into the hiring process, nearly as many are waiting, pointing to a lack of standards and challenges in verification, according to the Workforce and Learning Trends 2020 report by CompTIA.

Those doubts are shared by Josh Drew, regional vice president at Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm with corporate headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

"Firms are always looking at the latest and greatest when it comes to tech certifications and e-learning," Drew said. "However, because the market is still so tight for tech professionals and the demand is high, we haven't seen many hiring managers prioritize digital badges in the recruiting process."

Technology used for digital badges

Educational institutions, training organizations and employers can use digital credential management software to more securely create and manage digital credentials, certificates and badges.

This software typically includes content libraries with different templates and branding features. It usually integrates with corporate learning management systems and employee social media accounts such as LinkedIn.

The technology that supports digital credentials is seeing significant growth despite HR professionals and enterprise managers' reservations.

The digital badges market will grow from $83.3 million in 2018 to $205.6 million by 2023, according to MarketsandMarkets, a market research firm located in Hadapsar, India. The company cited demand from the online education community, which frequently awards digital badges, as helping fuel sales in this market. Heightened employee attention to professional development is also spurring higher sales.

Our [traditional] education system isn't equipped to meet [the] demands of [the] modern workforce and the rapid pace of change. It requires a different way to build and then recognize new skills.
David LeaserSenior executive of strategic growth initiatives, IBM's training and skills program

A real-life example

IBM is one vendor that offers digital badges both internally and externally.

For example, it uses digital badges to recognize its own workers' achievements and those of participants in its training programs. The tech giant announced in August 2020 that it had awarded 3 million digital badges since 2015.

IBM had given about half of that amount to its own employees and the other half to people outside the company, estimated David Leaser, senior executive of strategic growth initiatives at IBM's training and skills program.

Digital badges dovetail with modern workforce requirements, Leaser said. In the current workplace, employees must often quickly learn new skills in response to rapidly changing technologies and market demands.

In addition, digital badges can give certain potential employees a leg up.

New-collar workers, or those who continually develop technical and soft skills through opportunities outside conventional college degree programs, have benefited from IBM's digital badges, Leaser said.

"This is where I think badges have shown real value," Leaser said. "Our [traditional] education system isn't equipped to meet [the] demands of [the] modern workforce and the rapid pace of change. It requires a different way to build and then recognize new skills."

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