Accredited Business Communicator (ABC) is a designation that industry pros carry with pride, even wearing it on lapel pins and adding the title to their email signatures.
Behind the scenes, the International Association of Business Communicators accreditation program—which is being overhauled this year—has been bleeding cash and troubled by high dropout and failure rates.
“IABC’s accreditation program is in crisis, and must change, or cease operations,” a review panel concluded in 2011. IABC reported this in a February report (pdf).
Although IABC leadership now backs away from the term “crisis,” its paid and volunteer leadership agree that a program that lost $75,000 in 2012 was unsustainable and needs to change. Amid intense industry discussion, IABC plans to re-launch its accreditation this fall.
Details are still being worked out, but IABC will create a new exam and is looking at requiring additional work over four years to maintain the designation, says Gloria Walker, volunteer chair of the IABC’s Accreditation Committee. There will also be new global standards, along with a plan to adapt the ABC program to the era of social media.
“Part of the challenge we face,” Walker says, “is keeping up to date with all the new things that are happening in the profession, and certainly online, social media, digital communication—whatever term you use—has had a major impact.”
High dropout rate
A glance at figures suggests why a revamping is necessary. Last year, the program earned $25,000 while costing $100,000 to run—not counting volunteer time, according to IABC’s February report.
From 2006 to mid-2012, 600 applicants never finished the process. In 2011 the exam failure rate was 60 to 70 percent.
The current program, which has accredited 2,000 professionals since it began three decades ago, will sunset Sept. 30. Current ABCs will retain their accreditation. IABC hasn’t admitted new applicants since last September, but those in the pipeline may complete their work, and IABC has brought in extra volunteers to help get them through.
ABC volunteers have day jobs, which has slowed the process in the past. The new program will rely on digital testing and mentoring that doesn’t tax volunteers so heavily, Walker adds.
“We’ve got a lot of people committed to making this happen, a lot of people very excited about the possibility of being able to access the program anytime, anywhere,” she says. “It’s going to make a big difference for us.”
Debate on LinkedIn
In LinkedIn forums and in a Ragan.com survey, many are debating IABC’s future direction.
Asked, “Do you believe that IABC accreditation has value in your profession?” only 38 percent of 761 survey respondents have answered yes so far (the survey is still open). Forty-two percent do not think so.
Fifty-four percent said they are IABC members, with another 24 percent saying they’ve let their membership lapse; 22 percent said they are not members.
The Ragan survey is open to all comers, and no attempt is made to verify IABC membership claims. But it offers a snapshot of opinion among Ragan.com’s readership of industry professionals.
One respondent who thought the ABC had no value added, “I don’t see it in the many people that I’ve hired either.” Others disagreed, and one respondent commented, “Absolutely. It’s big in Canada.”
Dan Maceluch says he believes so strongly in the concept of accreditation that he is serving as volunteer director of portfolios for the IABC Accreditation Committee. The ABC opens doors professionally, intrigues employers who learn about it, and connects him with a network of other communicators, he says.
“For me accreditation was about achieving a ‘personal best,’ subjecting my work and myself to peer review, adhering to best practices and applying rigorous professional standards, and demonstrating to my employers my commitment to continuous learning post-college,” Maceluch stated in an email.
Accredited in 1984
Shel Holtz of Holtz Communication + Technology says whatever IABC can do to make the accreditation more relevant is a good thing. He appreciates the ABC process that helped him inventory his strengths and weaknesses, but the credential indicates little about his ability to meet contemporary challenges, he says.
“I was accredited in 1984,” Holtz says. “That certainly doesn’t qualify me to be a communicator today, but I have had to do nothing in order to maintain that, other than pay my dues and maintain my membership in IABC.”
Roger D’Aprix, managing director of D’Aprix & Co., author and IABC Fellow, says he has seldom used the credential except within IABC circles.
“I doubt that revision of the program will have much impact on employers,” D’Aprix says, “unless it’s a well-integrated effort with university accreditation of undergraduate and graduate communication programs, continuing education, and the need to demonstrate professional competence.”
This should to be accompanied by a campaign to explain the program to prospective employers, he adds, suggesting that IABC replace volunteers with paid evaluators.
Walker says IABC needs to gain recognition for its certification by marketing its value outside the profession, with managers, human resources pros, and others. But this echoes wider concerns for all associations within the profession, she says.
“So we have to raise our game in terms of how people are developed through their careers,” Walker says.
Accreditation still matters
In the Internet age, professionals can find online courses and other ways to develop themselves. So does accreditation matter?
“Probably more than ever,” IABC told Ragan.com via email. “Both employers and employees want certainty—certainty that the skills the employers need are what employees have regardless of where they are in the world. Certification ensures that a professional can deliver at that senior level and stay current in their profession.”
Anne Mowat of Anne Mowat Consulting in Castlegar, British Columbia, says ABC “lends a third-party credibility that transcends country or industry. It is a credential that sends a signal that you’ve proven yourself as a professional in business communications.”
Mowat does agree that modifications are needed. “Our channels are changing,” she says. “Our technologies are changing. Our outputs and our models are all changing. So we need to change.”
IABC states that once the new certification program is in place, the organization, “the members who go through the program, and current ABCs will be in a much better and stronger place.”