Our research with organisational stakeholders
In the context of our research question, we define organisations as parties and entities that issue or require credentials to certify skills, or to promote or recruit people – in our case those with a distance to the labour market. As our target learner group also encompasses those who are in danger of being excluded from work – those with qualifications which may be outdated or no longer relevant in today’s labour market, we also wanted to interview employers with a lower-qualified and/ or “older” workforce.
Through our research we suggest that organisations falling into this category are part of unofficial (eco-) systems. We aimed to find out what organisations’ resources and interests in these systems are in order to identify and understand barriers to, and opportunities provided by, using Digital Credentials for our target group. However, this group of actors is broad, including stakeholders at all levels in both the private and public sectors, from policy makers to unemployment agencies to NGOs.
Of our original fourteen organisational stakeholders, we identified eight which we deemed critical for understanding the dynamics and inter-dependencies in the ecosystem for digital credentialing:
- Policy Makers
- Commercial lobbyists
- Educational advocacy organisations
- Unemployment agencies
- Non-formal and Informal learning organisations
- Formal Education providers
The diagram below illustrates the actors and the inter-dependencies within the credentialing ecosystem.
In the diagram we have separated organisations into three broad categories; employers, actors working with, or aiming toward, policies and legislation, and organisations working directly with learners in an educational or mentoring capacity.
Of the stakeholders depicted, employers form a category of their own, as they are the “receivers” of badges – the entities which must ultimately accept and acknowledge any digital badges presented to them as proof of skills, experience or competence. In our interviews, we focussed particularly on companies employing labour for low-skilled jobs, where no formal qualifications were required. In the employer category, we have also included Recruitment agencies, as they too are looking for candidates based on their visible skills and competencies, in much the same way as an employer. We acknowledge that the functions of these types of organisation are slightly different – in that one supplies the labour market with candidates, whilst the other “is” the labour market, however implications for digital badges are much the same.
Bodies responsible for making laws and policies around employment and accreditation were the second category identified. Policy makers, regional municipalities, commercial lobbyists and educational advocates were part of this group.
In addition to interviewing individuals who were instrumental in writing the guidelines governing unemployment and educational regulations, we also spoke to regions and municipalities in the different partner countries, some of whom were already implementing digital accreditation for key skills. Commercial lobbyists are the actors which are aiming to increase STEM capabilities of the general population, and, by extension, to also increase the visibility of STEM skills and competencies, to ensure availability of appropriately qualified candidates for the current labour market.
Our final category encompassed all types of education providers. Whilst formal education providers offer both academic and vocational programmes which work through curriculums towards a formal qualification, it is often NGOs, Non-formal and Informal learning organisations that are tasked with, and paid for, qualifying people to employability.
We realised that in order to understand their individual goals and their blockers, we needed to talk with multiple representatives from each of them, so we stepped out to interview stakeholders in each of the partner countries.
With the selection criteria based on the groups identified, we recruited and interviewed a minimum of fourteen organisations in each country; Norway, The Netherlands and Germany. The interviews were conducted with one, or several, representatives from the chosen organisations and were based on a semi-structured localised questionnaire.
The main themes covered were:
- Organisational demographics
- Recruitment process and recognition of learning
- Candidate requirements; matching candidates’ skills to organisational needs now and in the future
- Knowledge and experience with digital credentials
- Impressions of Digital Badges
- (After showing a demo of OpenBadges:) Relevancy and perceived benefits of Digital Credentials for their organisation; benefits and blockers.
The participants were recruited primarily through personal and professional networks, and were approached primarily due to their relevance to this project because of their collaboration with our target learner groups.
The interviews were conducted between November 2021 and February 2022.
Whilst the labour market clearly showed differences in the three project countries, our interviews revealed that there were certain common factors affecting all markets when it came to the implementation of digital badges.
We realised during our interviews that hiring (HR) is typically disconnected organisationally from internal development (Workforce training and Development), where there had been slightly more contact with digital badging programs. The missing experience with digital credentials outside of the organisation leads to the trust problem: how can they ensure that a digital credential is a reliable, trustworthy indication of a claimed skill or competence?
A further conundrum may be that the gamification of learning through awarding badges, and the use of badges as a motivational tool for learning may at cross purposes with the concepts of reliability and credibility.
As such, digital credentials are far from being an established currency.
Country specific insights
The main part of our organisational interviews focused on organisations which either employed unskilled labour (for example cleaners, hotel staff, shop workers) or organisations who helped those with few academic qualifications get into work.
None of the commercial organisations we interviewed had heard of badges prior to us contacting them. When the concept of digital badge was explained, the interviewees were all intrigued by the possibilities that the use of badges could lead to. At the time we conducted the interviews, there was an applicant scarcity in the post-Covid labour market and most employers struggled to find candidates for open positions. For positions without the need of any formal education or experience, employers did not spend much, in some cases any, time on the recruitment process. Therefore, due to the scarcity of job applicants, they would not consider implementing badges for the actual recruitment process. Filtering candidates by competence level was not a necessity due to the low number of applicants in comparison with available positions.
Although not so interested in badges for recruiting, several of the interviewees considered badges would be helpful both as a motivational tool and as a way of tracking the kinds of training employees have gone through. In the organisations interviewed, a lack of systematic training was evident with much of the training being done locally and informally, according to need. Interviewees saw the potential of badges to be a way of systemising their training programmes, by giving legitimacy to internal training courses helping both the employer to gain an overview of in-house competence, whilst also rewarding the employee for their learning.
For organisations helping unskilled applicants into the labour market, the interest in badges centred around the opportunity to document internships, attendance and a positive attitude. These organisations were generally positive to the badge concept, however were quick to point out that in order for badges to be useful in Norway, they would need to be embraced by the whole ecosystem – a prerequisite which may take a long time to implement.
Non- formal and Informal Education
Results from the education providers we interviewed in Norway were very mixed, with no conclusive trend. One of the providers had long since implemented Digital Badges on online adult education courses, however badges were presented and utilised as an “electronic certificate” and no data was available on how badge earners had used their badges subsequent to receiving them. Some interviewees raised concerns with standardisation – not only for informal skills, but also for formal educational components, which may vary greatly in content.
One of the hindrances suggested was the lack of adoption of badges in the public higher education system, and it was suggested that this sector in Norway may never be willing to enter the digital badge market, an opinion that is at odds with other countries in the project.
We interviewed a range of stakeholders in Germany that are part of an ecosystem that might have an interest in promoting people distant to the labour market through digital badges and credentials.
The companies interviewed used the typical HR tools (job ads, LinkedIn etc., job portals) to look for the people they needed. At the time of writing, in a booming labour market, finding good candidates for jobs has been problematic as the job seeker pool was considered “empty” and generally competition for candidates was high. Consequently employers had to source potential candidates from outside their typical filter set, including those who would not pass established criteria (i.e. formal education) – although German companies still seem to adhere to formal educational requirements. However, potential candidates from our target group were largely invisible to them, because formal identifiers, such as education or job experience were missing for them, and thus they could not be found through search engines.
None of the companies we talked to had any substantial experience with Digital Credentials, their HR tools are not equipped to deal with them, and the whole application process is typically analog/pdf and CV based.
We talked to a few representatives from Policy Making, including regional senates and the Berlin Senate head of department responsible for unemployment. Responsibilities included setting guidelines and rules on employability, defining the responsibilities and limits of employers and creating relevant policies. What we learned is that one of their main goals is to ensure that people have a formal qualification, as statistics indicate that people without formal qualification lose employment when the economy is not thriving. Hence – their hypothesis is that only formal qualification leads to steady employment. This makes other forms of education and credentialing, including micro-credentials, implicitly inferior, although they may be complementary and beneficial for motivation.
All informal education providers or promoting groups we talked to were well aware of the need to recognise knowledge, skills and achievements outside of formal and traditional education providers – it often constituted their actual mission. An example is the MINT forum, a coordinating group of over 30 foundations aiming to promote MINT knowledge and scientific thinking, complementing formal school (K-12) education and lifelong learning. While they see the potential of digital credentials and badges, there are several blockers that impede its implementation and adoption: one is the missing knowledge about the technical and organisational establishment of a badging program, being unsure about the solutions and solution providers, and the integration into issuing workflows. The other is the building up of taxonomies that are in line with other initiatives, or industry standards, to assure the value of issued badges.
We held an interview with an NGO supporting the integration of refugee adults and youths through socialisation into activities and practice placements. Through attending internships, adult participants in the programme not only gained work experience, but also improved their language skills and became acquainted with the German labour market, completing the programme with a formal qualification that would increase chances for future employment.
The main issue for the organisation’s target group was the transfer and proof of prior knowledge from their countries of origin, making matching this group with employers challenging. Whilst the NGO could endorse 21st Century skills – for example inter-cultural leadership, they would like to give these skills more visibility but are unsure how to do this.
Digital badges were an unfamiliar concept, and a barrier to their usage, in addition to a lack of technical and operational knowledge, was the concern that the labour market would not recognise a digital badge. As there is – at present – no such demand, there is little value for them in investing in the technical solutions and training necessary to introduce digital credentialing to the organisation’s current practices.
We had interviews with different kinds of stakeholders and organisations in the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands we have a so called ‘Skills gap’; there are more open positions / jobs than unemployed people, but the match between them is difficult to make. Many see that this Gap can be bridged by mapping people and jobs on skill-level. This would give insight in what is needed to match someone to a specific job. Digital Badges could help to visualise gained skills.
In our interviews with employers we learned that they never came across Digital Badges in their HR department. Hiring is preferably done via via and through scanning CVs for diplomas and work experience. There was no need to start using Digital Badges for the employers we interviewed, but using them for their internal training could be interesting.
From the point of view of the Ministry of Education, the ‘real change’ has to come from the employers; they need to make a change in how they do their interviews and what they consider valuable; not only diplomas but also gained skills; adapting a ‘show us what you’ve got” attitude.
Non-formal and informal learning
The concept of Digital Badges is still new for many organisations. We noticed in our interviews that organisations in the field of non-formal and informal learning are looking for ways to give recognition to what is learned in their organisation and therefore are very interested in Digital Badges. To start using Digital Badges more information is needed as well as some guidance on how to implement them within their organisation. There is a need to work in close cooperation with other organisations in the region, so their badges would not be self-contained.
We spoke with various people connected to the formal education system; teachers and managers at a VET and policy makers working at the ministry of Education focussing on Life Long Development. There is a shift in how people look at education; reinventing how to educate in close cooperation with businesses and in a region. Looking for ways not where the curriculum is leading, but rather what is needed for (new) jobs. Exams will become less important and work experience and portfolio will become more important. There is also focus on gaining social competences. Digital badges could be used for recognizing these extra learning outcomes.
The added value of issuing badges is that students will have proof of something they have learned, which otherwise cannot be verified by others (new education / employer) Badges can make learning transcendent; you could learn in different institutions or businesses which lead to a certificate or diploma. A region can really start working together.
In the Netherlands there are some regions who started to have a common approach on what is learned in their city / region and how to give recognition to this. In some regions they use Digital Badges. Examples of places within a region where badges are implemented are; education for different ‘new’ construction jobs in cooperation with VET and business; different non formal learning associations to give recognition to soft skills.
One interviewee stated that badges can democratise learning. A badge has its worth in the context where it is issued. A badge should always be made and issued in tune with the business. The social impact of this badge is personal; it will give the earner more self confidence and tangible evidence which can be used in job interviews. A fear for badges is that commercial organisations will take over and the open learning approach will lose its value. Badges should always be used to activate people to further development. Active projects with badges should work together at a National level.
Conclusions from the organisational interviews
The diagrams below indicate the main gains and blockers for each of the three categories which we used for the organisations we interviewed; employers, policy makers and education providers.
Whilst the gains for each category are slightly different, the blockers for each category seem to be very much in alignment, the common issues being recognition, standardisation, available resources and trust / reliability.
Need for standardisation
There is a need to understand the concept of Digital Badges and information on how to implement them. Many stakeholders from different types of organisation mentioned the need for a common language in order for digital badges to work. For employers, there needs to be clarity not only about what has been done to receive a badge but also about which level a badge has been issued for. This implies that skills taxonomies need to be linked to a universal “skills standard” which would allow learners, issuers and those who accept skills-based credentials to understand the criteria behind them. Employers opened to the idea of skills standardisation by industry, facilitating transferability for both employees and employers by using digital badges as proof of experience and competency.
The one message that was common to all types of organisation interviewed was the need for recognition in a wide eco-system. Digital credentials are worth little to the earner if they are not recognised or understood in the places where they wish to use them. Whilst NGOs and educational institutions are generally positive to the concept of digital badges, they do not see any value in implementing a system which will not benefit their users.
Ease of use
Working with Digital Badges needs to be easy, and to fit into existing administration systems; badges should be easy to understand and to issue. Many of the organisations interviewed expressed that time was a limiting factor in their daily work – a constant pressure to carry out their existing duties leaves little time for the implementation of new systems. This was particularly evident in the HR sector.
Throughout all stakeholder sectors, the reliability of a badge system was brought up, linking very much to a larger theme; Digital Trust. How can a community of trust be created for digital credentials?
Our final task on the Erasmus Plus project will be to create a tool kit for organisations who want to implement Digital Badges. Understanding the perspectives of different stakeholders has been essential work for us to be able to even begin on this task, but from our research so far, we see that the four factors above are key in managing to scale digital badges so that they really can be a helpful tool for those in danger of being excluded from the labour market.
Stay tuned for our third phase, where we attempt to provide a toolbox to make it happen nevertheless!