Enablement Vs Certification (is there a difference?)

Earlier this year, we wrote about the “Conscious Competence” Model and how newly recruited partners also go through the same 4 stages as newly recruited employees, and how your channel enablement style needs to change accordingly.

In this article we take the concept further by overlaying a typical partner program training, enablement and certification approach, and argue that most vendors believe they are developing partners through to Quadrant 4 (ie. Unconscious Competent) but in fact are leaving them in Quadrant 3 (ie. Conscious Competent) through misaligned certification programs.

But first let’s look at a quick reminder of the “Conscious Competence” model.

The “Conscious Competence” model is a 2×2 matrix that maps Competence (ie. the skills/motivation to do a task) against Consciousness (ie. the awareness of your level of Competence).

This gives us a matrix that looks like this, with four distinctive phases:

  1. Unconscious Incompetent (“I don’t know what I don’t know”)
  2. Conscious Incompetent (“I now know what I don’t know and what I need to know”)
  3. Conscious Competent (“I know what I know and how to do it well”)
  4. Unconscious Competent (“I know it so well, I don’t need to think about it”)

From recent consulting assignments, where we have reviewed partner program effectiveness (and specifically the training & certification component), we found there are systemic partner program flaws that confuse certification with enablement.

An enabled partner by our definition has the ability to be highly productive and virtually self-sufficient around the vendors’ products or services. Certification however only proves that “someone” has passed a test or exam in a classroom, but may not necessarily mean that they are capable in the real world.

Enablement by our definition then is the journey though the four phases of competency, which may or may not require an exam, but is usually the desired partner end state the vendor desires.

Flaws With Programmatic Certification Systems

In our research, some of the programmatic flaws or gaps we found with vendor certification programs that highlight this difference between certification and enablement included:

  1. The partner program requires a set number of partner staff to be certified to maintain tier or status level. However either the partner is too small (physically) or the partner program is a global program that has not been adapted to Australian market size, so the vendor “assists” the partner in group online “certification sessions” to ensure appropriate number of partner staff meet the program requirements.
  2. Similar to above but the online training and associated certification test is out dated, irrelevant or just poorly constructed so that partner staff tolerate these sessions or are incented to complete the certification, but don’t actually learn anything that would make them truly “enabled”.
  3. Limited vendor training resources or budgets mean that face-to-face training or technical workshops are either not held at all, or are only held infrequently in a single capital city, requiring partners to travel to this venue at the beck and call of the vendor (often at their own cost) or risk potential tier or status “demotion”. Therefore partners send the minimum number of staff rather than the desired number of staff.
  4. Vendors have inadequate reseller certification and competency tracking systems in place to really know what each reseller is capable of or, or where/what their current certification status is. This is either a complete systems gap i.e. it is not tracked at all, or as partner staff move from one organisation to another, there are insufficient processes in place to manage this movement leading to a whole gamut of issues.

Channel Dynamics Best Practice Suggestions

Firstly we are not arguing that vendor certification per se is a bad thing; actually quite the reverse. We strongly believe that vendor certification when done well helps vendors, partners and customers identify and work with the right partners that have the necessary skills to design, build and deliver the solution. Additionally higher levels of certification should bring improved partner operating margins and be a differentiator in the market that allows the partner to win in a competitive situation against a lesser certified partner or a partner presenting a potentially alternative or competitive solution.

We are however against falling into the programmatic certification trap (as highlighted above) as the panacea to enablement.

Therefore we would offer the following suggestions or tips, which are essentially the opposite of the four previous points or findings if as a vendor you desire your partners to be in the Unconscious Competent quadrant.

1. Understand and Respect your Partners’ Capabilities

Many partners often have multiple certifications or competencies across multiple similar technologies or vendors. Recognise and nurture these. While there are often significant differences at a product level between competing vendors’ products, often the underlying technology base is close to or essentially the same. In a best practice or ideal world these core skills would recognised by the certifying vendor and count towards having the partner being “enabled” rather than sitting an online exam from scratch.

This of course is easier said than done, especially if the vendor is a large global or multinational with a corresponding program. However for some vendors this will be possible. I.e. if partner 1 is established and also certified with vendor Y to this level by definition they will have the required complimentary skills and customer base to meet my needs. What is then required is product familiarisation and the ability to competently present and deliver the solution to the customer. This may require “bridging” training to ensure the partner moves to the right quadrant.

2. Don’t Rely Purely on Online Training

When we interview partners, the almost universal response is that while online training has its place for quick review or revision (especially technical) don’t rely or assume that this is sufficient to have the partner be adequately competent to sell or deliver the solution. There is no substitute for face-to-face, either through joint field calls or installations or face-to-face/lab based training.

The reality is that vendor budgets, especially the smaller vendors, do not stretch to having a multi city presence or demo centre. However this can be overcome by localised field engagement, even in conjunction with a regular road show event/program or a pre-planned & published technical roads how/training calendar where the vendor comes to the partner, rather than the other way around.

3. Use the Planning Process to Monitor Progress

For medium to top tier partners this is also consistent feedback that we hear about what partners expect. Paraphrased this is “don’t ask me to do useless and unnecessary certifications and expect me to tell you what we have achieved”.

Where possible use a partner business planning process to track and progress certification & enablement

Every partner is different is some way, so a tailored business planning approach that incents and aligns both vendor and partner goals is far more sustainable than a big stick approach. Best practice is about working with the partner to uncover customer opportunities that match the joint vision and required skills now and in the future, and of course how to move from the present to the desired end state.

4. Be Firm But Flexible

The value of any partner program is only as good as the perceived value of the tier or status and associated benefits it delivers, not only the individual partner, but also the broader partner community. If there is widespread rorting of the certification process for the sake of certification, this ultimately de-values the program.

At a partner level, staff move, and vendor quarterly or annual certification requirements do not always match the partner’s business operating reality. Therefore our last recommendation is be firm but flexible. The integrity of a partner program is reliant on rules or criteria being met to garner certain benefits, and if this is eroded then partner trust is diminished. So it is clearly not sustainable to have partners in the “wrong” tier for any length of time. However if in conjunction with the above tips, temporary exceptions can be made to allow the partner to match the requisite program requirements. What or for how long will depend on pragmatic engagement, which we suggest in this instance is best practice.


We have seen some vendors stick slavishly to rolling out and enforcing their global certification program, but when we interview their top partners they will often complain that the process is costly and does not deliver any real value. We would argue that best practise is about having a clear program framework, with the appropriate partner education resources, supported by pragmatic field and back office engagement.

If the mutual goal of having the partner be an “unconscious competent” around a vendor technology or solution is agreed (remember sometimes this is only the vendor’s goal) then building and implementing a tailored plan around the vendor program and partner resources to achieve this is the first step. Do not just assume partners completing certifications means that they want or know how to proactively sell your technology or solution.