The Power of Systems Thinking to Understand the Total Impact of Credentialing Decisions

The Problem: A Complex Credentialing System

The United States credentialing system is very complex, involving many types of organizations and governmental agencies (see Figure 1). Very few credentialing issuers fully understand how their actions may impact other credentialing issuers. For example, higher education institutions typically develop credentials through processes that are fully controlled by institutional faculty and administrators, who may not consider how their credentials relate to credentials issued by other organizations. This might result in a situation where changes to the curriculum for a health sciences program may impact the ability for an individual who completes that program to get licensed by the state licensure board to work in the related occupation. This important connection between curriculum and licensure requires both credential issuers to be aware of how their credentials relate and impact each other. One strategy to better understand the relationships among credential providers and the impact their decisions have on each other is to apply a systems thinking framework to the credentialing system.

The US Post-Secondary Credentialing System Figure by Workcred.
Figure 1: The U.S. Post-Secondary Credentialing System

A Solution: Systems Thinking Framework

Systems thinking is a powerful approach to understanding how the different parts of a system influence one another as well as how they work within the context of that system over time. Systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to effectively and efficiently produce an output/outcome. Its philosophy is a recognition that underlying structures of systems drive events and patterns.

Systems thinking is often used as a problem-solving approach by identifying problems as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to a specific part, outcome, or event. Systems thinking can be an effective way to analyze important systems which have chronic problems (not one-time concerns) with known histories that have not been successfully addressed, despite multiple efforts.

The U.S. credentialing system is an example of a system that must be viewed holistically. It is a highly complex system composed of multiple components, which are themselves complex. Each of the boxes in Figure 1 (e.g., certification bodies, higher education, federal government) are a sub-system of the credentialing system. The organizations in the credentialing system have direct or indirect connections with each other. These connections may be through individuals who obtain different credentials, competition for new customers, or regulations.

More generally, using a systems thinking approach for credentialing offers the ability to identify organizational behavior by mapping repeated cycles of input, throughput, output, and feedback between an organization and other components in its system. In concrete terms, this mapping provides an indicator of how the credentialing system is meeting the demands of the stakeholders being examined, and how changes over time impact those stakeholders. To go back to our earlier example, a misalignment between the health sciences program and licensure would result in a decrease in the number of learners who are able to gain licensure and enter their chosen occupation. This would also be reflected in a systems analysis as a decrease in the relationship between those two organizations. If this misalignment is left unaddressed, learners would eventually stop enrolling in that educational program and that higher education institution might stop offering that program. Systems analysis would reflect that component becoming unstable and ultimately deteriorating. This ability to reflect how dynamic changes within sub-systems impact other components of the system is a powerful characteristic of a systems thinking approach.  

A systems thinking approach to the credentialing system also has the promise to offer additional insight into some of its chronic, well-documented problems including: inequities in access to credentials, uneven quality of credentials, credentials that have no career pathways, and high costs to earn credentials. While problems of sub-systems within the credentialing system are often studied (e.g., credit transfers between higher education institutions), there has been little research on understanding the credentialing system as a whole. Yet the credentialing system is exactly the type of system that would benefit from a systems thinking approach because it needs to be understood in its totality in order to make valid decisions on how to improve system outcomes – our society benefits most when all the sub-systems work well together as it broadens the inclusivity of individuals who are served.

Additionally, a systems thinking framework would also offer insight into how changes to improve one sub-system might positively or negatively affect another sub-system. For example, changes in regional employer demand for occupations will influence the credentials paid for by Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funds (whose policies require credential alignment with regional workforce needs), which could alter demands for those credentials from providers. This is particularly important in understanding the potential unintended consequences of new policies and/or regulations.

Finally, using a systems thinking approach can simulate which sub-systems and relationships have the largest ability to impact the whole system. This would allow policymakers and funders to better understand where and how they might see impacts in different sub-systems or relationships, potentially identifying metrics to measure those impacts that might not be obvious.


Because of the interrelatedness of the U.S. credentialing system, more interaction, communication, and research are needed to improve the quality and effectiveness of the credentialing system. Solutions need to focus on how they might impact all the different organizations and sub-systems involved in the credentialing system. There are too many connections between different components in this system to address the education and workforce problems by fixing one component at a time. Furthermore, if relationships in the credentialing system are not fully understood, altering one component to make it more efficient might actually make the system as a whole more inefficient as an unintended consequence. A systems thinking approach that takes into consideration the entire credentialing system is needed to improve the effectiveness of credentials and the efficiency of the credentialing system in the U.S.

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