Accreditation and Certification
Accreditations and certifications are crucial mechanisms through which organizations and organizational practices gain acceptance and appreciation within their relevant fields or contexts. Accreditations concern meeting standards of acceptable behavior. Certifications concern the quality of specific products, services, or other forms of performance. They both operate through legal and informal requirements and the monitoring of different aspects of organizational life, and influence an organization’s ability to operate within a given social context. This entry examines the social context of accreditations and certifications and the ways in which they are produced and diffused. The entry concludes by examining how accreditation and certification relate to corporate reputation, including through legitimacy and status.
Accreditation and certifications are usually seen as an expression of what Michael Power described as the “audit society,” where different forms of measurement have become an integrated part of how we organize and manage a wide range of uncertainties and risks in areas such as politics, economy, and sustainability. The production, circulation, and use of accreditations and certifications function as tools by which individual organizations can be assessed, evaluated, and governed. But also, in more general terms, these tools create stability and predictability in a given area of society by signaling what characteristics of an organization are crucial and attractive and how to ensure that these characteristics are achieved, upheld, and communicated. Accreditations and certifications are involved in forming both individual as well as collective perceptions about organizations in terms of their identities, goals, structures, and activities.
Production and Diffusion
Accreditation and certification standards are developed for specific sectors such as education or health care. These standards are set for the provision of a category of services. Standards can also be set for specific organizational practices across industries, such as corporate social responsibility, quality, and risk management, as seen in the International Organization for Standardization standards. The different accreditation and certification standards are developed and monitored by accrediting organizations established for this purpose. These organizations can be established within a field or profession with the explicit intent to codify a set of practices. Identifying and setting these codes have the effect of legitimizing industry, field, or societal standards.
Accreditation and certification require organizations to apply themselves to monitoring and evaluating actors in order to certify that they meet the codified standards. There may be relatively high barriers to entry to create difference between organizations and to garner the privileged position for those achieving accreditation. Barriers to entry may also include the time and resources required to adopt and document organizational practices to meet accreditation and certification standards and then to regularly go through the evaluation and monitoring processes.
Accrediting organizations are often made up of members from the relevant field. These members may be organizational actors, such as banking or resources firms, or members of a profession, such as marketing or finance. As legitimacy is a central driver of accreditation, it can be a deliberate strategy for market leaders to be instrumental in defining accreditation standards and support the establishment of accrediting organizations. Through shaping accreditation standards, these organizational actors set the standards for the industry. In some cases, the members are leaders in that field and seek to gain a competitive advantage by setting the standards for other organizations to follow. In doing so, they can increase their own legitimacy and reputation and seek to influence others’ perceptions of that industry or sector, especially if its reputation has been tarnished.
In a similar vein, professions can behave as actors who are instrumental in accreditation processes to influence the reputation of that profession. Setting standards and requiring adoption of professional standards can serve the purpose of legitimizing and raising the status of that profession. Raising entry barriers and demanding accreditation can have the effect of raising the reputation of that profession or occupation, so practitioners can demand higher fees for professional services and dictate who can and cannot practice in that field.
Auditing is the central mechanism of accreditation, as it provides an ongoing evaluation of whether organizations meet legitimated standards. These standards can be codified as both hard and soft regulation. Hard regulation requires organizations to meet particular standards so that accrediting organizations or legal actors can evaluate compliance, demand a change in practice, or impose penalties for failing to comply.
Soft regulation is predicated on reputation and instead provides a framework of rules that an organization chooses to be evaluated against. On the one hand, the organization can then benefit from proclaiming that it meets the accredited guidelines, with the endorsement that a third party has audited it as meeting the guidelines. Soft regulations for auditing against also codify and articulate guidelines for organizational practices that might be uncertain or contested. Reputation and, indeed, legitimacy can be gained from organizations being able to say that they meet standards approved of and audited by an independent accrediting body. As such, much of this evaluative work is conducted by the accreditation bodies that regularly and routinely check to be sure that practices align with standards and that standards align with industry and societal expectations. Auditing reflects how well the organization meets standards and as such provides a tool for building reputation.
Legitimacy, Reputation, and Status
In terms of legitimacy, accreditations and certifications (once granted by evaluating and monitoring bodies) reflect the long-term adaptation of organizations to what is defined as appropriate for organizations sharing the same context, industry, or organizational field. Legitimacy granted through accreditations and certifications is directly related to whether an organization reflects shared values and commonly held beliefs or whether it violates uncertainty-reducing social codes. The legitimizing effect of accreditations and certifications reflects an organization’s ability to behave similarly as organizations that are already defined as legitimate.
Accreditations and certifications might also act, however, as a powerful tool for competition, as they can be seen as a basis for corporate reputation. By way of comparing the ability of individual organizations to meet the requirements and standards stated by different accreditations and certifications, these evaluation forms provide a mechanism for some organizations to show that they have advantages over other offerings, thereby building their unique position (i.e., reputation) in competitive markets. Accreditations and certifications, thus, create stratification in an industry or market so that products and organizations can be compared and ranked by reputation.
While accreditation and certification is a mechanism for organizations to gain reputation, repair legitimacy, and gain market advantage, one of the criticisms against this process is that it privileges certain societal actors. The accreditation and certification process has the effect of creating socially appreciated associations emphasizing not only particular organizational practices and professional frameworks that meet the codified standards but also high-level affiliations, which are more likely to be considered credible and trustworthy than similar claims made by organizations with low-status affiliations—that is, those not being accredited or certified. An illustrative example is the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business accreditation, which aims at advancing quality management education worldwide. In most cases, it is more valuable to be associated with accredited schools such as Harvard University, Northwestern University, or University of California, Berkeley, than being able to display that one’s own business school has met the standards required by the association.
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