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The Pros and Cons of Using an Association Management System for Certification

by | Certification

When certification organizations decide to upgrade their technology, one of the common options to consider is an association management system (AMS) for certification. And, in the market, there are several AMS’s that have “certification” modules. A certification organization may also consider using a learning management system or a certification management system.

So, what is the appeal of an association management system for certification? Let’s dive in and outline the pros and cons of using an association management system for certification.

Defining an Association Management System for Certification vs. A Certification Management System

An association management system is good at managing an organization’s relationship with an individual, typically a member, and that individual’s activity with the organization. It keeps track of the association’s interactions with the member, such as membership level, event participation, and purchases.

The nature of certification is very process-oriented from start to finish and includes processes like the eligibility process, retake process, accommodation processes, recertification process, reinstatement process, and payment rules. A flexible certification management system is good at setting up workflows for your certification operation processes. If you have to “code your process,” you don’t have a certification management system.

How Does Cost Factor Into the Decision to Use an AMS for Certification?

An AMS may cost thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and a few, just under a million dollars. The cost is typically tied to the robustness of the feature set offered by the system and the amount of effort required to implement the system for the organization.

Before considering the pros and cons of using an association management system for certification, it’s important to know the factors that can affect cost over time.

Lower Higher
Initial Cost The organization already has an AMS that they can use for certification.AND / ORThe certification program is relatively simple and does not require AMS customization. The organization needs to acquire and implement an AMS.AND / ORThe AMS needs to be customized to support the program.
Ongoing Costs

The program is fairly static.AND / OR

Out-of-the box use does not require any investment when the AMS is upgraded.

Program is innovating.AND / OR

AMS customizations require continual investments to maintain, especially when the system is upgraded.

AMS “Pros” With this cost framework in mind, we can look at the pros and cons to determine if using an association management system for a certification program is a solid investment.

As an “all-in-one” management platform, the promise of an association management system is that it will serve as the single system for all of the key organizational stakeholders, membership, marketing, finance, education, and events. At its core, an AMS is a membership database that stores all of the interactions an organization has with its members. The three functions an AMS typically supports include:

  • eCommerce – Membership dues, event registration, publication purchasing, subscription management, chapter affiliation.
  • Communications – Website builder, email marketing, “members only” content.
  • Reporting – Financial reports, membership activity reports, etc.

Within an organization, most AMS’s primarily serve the membership team, the marketing team, and the finance team. Different AMS’s have relative strengths serving each of these stakeholders, and the more these teams are able to do in the system, the more expensive the system.

What About Certification?

Isn’t a certification activity just a registration page and a payment in a shopping cart? Surely an association management system can handle that? After all, isn’t certification just like an event in the AMS? Well, that may be true—until it isn’t, just like event management.

If your organization is considering an association management system for certification, it is essential to compare your certification process to what the association management system can handle out of the box. Certification organizations typically have two major processes to manage for certification—initial applications and recertification, each with supporting minor processes and exceptions.

A Comparison of Certification Processes and AMS “Gotchas”

Certification Process Definition AMS Consideration
Registration process The prospective applicant will submit basic contact and demographic information and express interest in the program. An AMS handles registration well, as it is very similar to registering to become a member.
Application process The applicant provides additional information required by the certification program. This may include education information, work experience, or a sample work product.
Some certification programs are exam only, and this process is not required.
For certification programs with simple eligibility rules, most AMS’s can enable the collection of additional information.Gotcha: If a program has eligibility paths, “if this, then that” application logic, most AMS’s will not be able to support that requirement as a single application.
Payment process Inevitably an organization will require payment for the application to move to the next step.

The eCommerce module (aka store) in the AMS will handle a simple application payment process, the bundling of certification application and membership fee (if an option), and refunds.Gotcha: An AMS may not support more sophisticated payment rules, such as:

  • Collecting payments in multiple stages during the application process(such as an application fee and an exam registration fee).
  • Allowing third parties (such as an employer or school) to pay the application fee.
  • Enabling discounts or vouchers.
Staff Review process Typically, staff reviews the content for certification applications where additional eligibility information is required.As an audit process, a staff review can occur before the applicant schedules an exam or after the fact. The applicant will need to resubmit if the information is incomplete or does not meet the rules. Most AMS’s do not have the means to manage an application review process out of the box.Gotcha: If your program eligibility rules are complex, your AMS will likely not support a review process within the system, and you will need to set up a manual process outside of the AMS. You will need to consider how you track issues, communicate with the candidate, and manage resubmitted information.
Exam communications

Exam communications have a variety of key components, including:

  • The certification organization communicates the candidate’s authorization test status to the testing center and the candidate.
  • The testing center communicates to the certification organization and to the candidate that the candidate has scheduled their test.
  • The testing center communicates to the certification organization the candidate’s score.
  • The certification organization communicates the test score to the candidate.
  • If the candidate has failed, the certification organization communicates to the candidate when they can retake the exam.

In addition to the standard exam process, many programs need to consider:

  • Accommodation requests (and securing sensitive information).
  • “Take two” retake fees and programs.

If the AMS integrates with the testing provider, much of this communication can be automated.Gotcha: If an AMS doesn’t integrate with the test center or have the means to at least exchange files, then your staff will be sending the test and the appropriate files and uploading results into the system. This might work with programs with a few test windows a year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for programs that offer continuous testing.

If your AMS does not support an accommodations process, you will need to support this process manually or outsource it to your testing company.

“Take two” testing has risen in popularity. This is when the candidate pays extra to test (at a discount) to have a second chance at the exam. This model has become popular in many programs where the certification is required for employment, and sometimes it is paid for by the employer. Most AMS’s do not support this type of purchase.


At a minimum, recertification typically involves paying a fee. Recertification may also have reinstatement, grace periods, and audit rules that the system needs to support.Most organizations require tracking continuing education.

More mature programs also include:

  • A catalog of approved CE.
  • CE requirements within different test blueprint areas.
  • Assessments
  • Continued work (clinical practice) requirement.

The AMS should be able to handle the fee collection without an issue. An AMS with a certification module should allow the certificant to record professional development activities and upload supporting documentation.Gotcha: Most AMS’s struggle in recertification in three areas: exceptions, requirements beyond a CE log, and audit.

Most AMS’s do not include sophisticated recertification tools “out of the box,” so make sure you check.

Audit Process An organization may review each initial application or recertification application, or they may perform that in-depth review as an after-the-fact audit of the submission materials.In some cases, the applicant attests that they have the supporting information and agrees to provide it if audited. The AMS should allow the submission of relevant materials online, either as a part of the initial submissions or when the application is selected for audit.Gotcha: The AMS can support the online attestation and requires a manual process to submit supporting materials. Think email with attachments or email and Dropbox folders.
This approach typically does not scale and can become a resource drain.

AMS “Cons”

In reviewing the process list above, the “gotchas” that apply to your program are your cons. Meaning, if your AMS does not support your program requirements out of the box, that will be its primary “con.” And some of these gotcha’s will be more relevant than others at different stages of program growth.

Why? Everything you do that isn’t supported by the AMS will need to be developed at additional time and cost. These customizations become more expensive over time, incurring technical debt, which typically comes due at the point of the AMS upgrade.

When Is an Association Management System for Certification the Best Choice?

The ideal scenario is that the organization already has an AMS that they like. They are launching a new program where they can tailor the initial application and recertification rules to fit within the AMS’s capabilities. This approach allows the organization to launch a new program at a lower cost. Additionally, test volume is very low with one to three testing windows a year, so not integrating with a testing provider isn’t a big deal—yet.

If the AMS doesn’t support the certification program’s rules, then the organization will need to build out the AMS to meet those requirements. As soon as the program hears “customize your AMS,” it might be time to consider implementing a certification management system instead.

How Do You Know When Your Certification Program Has Outgrown Your AMS?

If your organization is using an association management system for certification, the point for reevaluation is when the development cost of modifying an association management system for certification (even ones with the “certification module”) can exceed the cost of a separate certification management system.

As programs evolve, they may add components that are difficult to retrofit into an AMS. These can include:

  • Initial application eligibility paths.
  • Complex exam retake rules.
  • Professional development activities are shared across multiple credentials.
  • Progressive or “stackable” certifications.
  • Time-based rules (early discounts, late fees, grace periods).
  • Complex work experience requirements.
  • Third-party participation in the certification of individuals (academic institutions, employers, and licensing boards).
  • Portfolio certifications.

This functionality can be built into an association management system for certification, but why risk building it when you can buy it?

The Alternative to an Association Management System for Certification

When faced with customizing an association management system for certification, an organization should consider implementing a certification management solution instead.

And, if an organization feels they still need an AMS, consider one that best meets the needs of the other stakeholders in the organization (membership, finance, education, marketing) and integrates with a certification management system. Integration accomplishes three key objectives.

  • It enables the AMS to serve as the system of record for the organization.
  • It enables the certification program to leverage technology built just for certification.
  • It shares the appropriate level of detail across systems for stakeholder reporting purposes.

LearningBuilder integrates with many association management systems, even some with “certification” modules.” If you need a new system and are considering customizing your association management system for certification, we would love to talk.

Getting Started With Heuristic Solutions

Heuristics Solutions provides software solutions for certification and licensure boards that can improve your process efficiency and drive down costs. If you are running into roadblocks using your association management system for certification and would like more information on how a certification management system will enable your program to scale, Contact Us or schedule a meeting with one of our expert team members.

Heuristic Solutions is a leader in software and technology for certification, licensure, and accreditation. Partner with us today, and we’ll modernize your system to better serve your organization.


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