This Monday it was announced that AXELOS — the custodians of best practice frameworks and methods such as ITIL and PRINCE2 — will be sold to PeopleCert.
AXELOS was set up in 2013 as a joint venture between the UK Cabinet Office and the professional services company Capita plc, with the latter being the major stakeholder with 51%. The idea then was to improve, grow and better monetise the IP owned by the Government
PeopleCert was the newest, and then became the exclusive Examination Institute (EI) for AXELOS in 2018, replacing the model with several competing EIs (such as APMG and EXIN). Those with an earlier ITIL or PRINCE2 certificate probably have it issued by one of those organizations.
A bit of background: I had been active in the IT Service Management (ITSM) space since 2005 and I was invited to join AXELOS in 2014 to lead the strategy and development of ITIL and the wider ITSM related product and services portfolio. I did so among the first employees and the company grew quickly from zero to 100+ employees in the first few years. In 2016 I took over the rest of the historical portfolio with PRINCE2, MSP, MoP, etc. This was an extremely intense and rewarding time (memoirs pending).
The core business conundrum
Monday’s announcement has created some buzz in the ITSM community among both the practitioners and the trainers (the overlap between these two circles has changed throughout the years). While the news about AXELOS in 2013 was widely met with puzzlement and ‘Now what?’ feelings, this recent change appears to be a logical, expected step for many. The questions about the future of the product portfolio remain, though.
In my personal view, this change of ownership is a good development for the product portfolio, provided a few essential principles are followed (as before or better than before). Here’s why I think that.
AXELOS was never an integral part of the Capita business and while pleasantly profitable, it was not a good fit. An organization with nearly 60,000 employees, a multitude of business lines, and a constant profit challenge dwarfs the (needs of the) small joint venture startup. The joint venture experiment itself worked relatively well though, all things considered.
Despite the fact that AXELOS deals with best practices, something that is created from historical data and experience and can hardly be seen as cutting edge, the company, as well as its products, need to be able to move fast. Useful best practices (within a context, etc.) can only survive through close and continual collaboration. The speed of change in various professional communities rarely follows a predictable cadence and dealing with mixed signals is a daily challenge.
Changing the pace
PeopleCert has shown themselves to be a strong player in the professional certification space, expanding both their product and services portfolio quite successfully. The rather recent exclusive EI deal was (in my opinion) a huge win for them and has brought them much closer to AXELOS already.
PeopleCert’s owners are clever businessmen and their close collaboration with AXELOS over the years has not been a silly nor an empty pursuit. This clear-cut business focus of AXELOS products might feel unsavory for some, especially because the development of the best practice portfolio was (to a large extent, mistakenly for many years) seen as a non-profit initiative, but the portfolio has existed to earn profit already for many years now.
With the joint venture, and as part of a much larger enterprise, the focus for AXELOS (as a business unit) was also profit. Of course, it was, you might say, but there’s a catch. Without an alignment between the owners’ main business lines and the business unit’s core business the much-needed synergy (yes, I said ‘synergy’) is missing and prioritisation is difficult. Profit ‘from something that you do’ and profit ‘from this specific thing we do’ are very different sets of guidelines for a business unit to operate by.
(Volume II of the memoirs might be dedicated to this alone.)
The challenges ahead for PeopleCert
For PeopleCert, the AXELOS business unit (however it is structured and called going forward) will be part of their core business and a rather significant part at that. And this, in my opinion, has a potentially massive positive impact on the sustainability of the best practice product portfolio.
There’s a lot of competition in the professional qualifications space. Despite the warnings from 10 years ago, this space has not dried up, but it has changed. It has also grown its influence on the bodies of knowledge being certified. For some movements — like DevOps, for example — this change has had a devastating effect, changing the focus from ore to pickaxe, or from the building to the scruffy scaffolding, if you will.
For any certification body, it is relatively easy to add new products to their portfolio, but making those products well-known, in-demand, and profitable is a whole different game. Safe to say, there are many silly examples of profitable qualifications on the market, but the waves of collective delusion are becoming shorter and shorter. The demand for qualifications with substance is growing in the enterprise — not as a maybe alternative for those silly ones, but as an alternative to not certifying employees at all. The demonstrable value of certifications is important.
Considering the size of the investment, it will be crucial for PeopleCert, both financially and strategically, to ensure that the relevance of the current AXELOS portfolio products doesn’t drop (further). In fact, it will be crucial to ensure that the relevance of the portfolio increases significantly. Considering both the history and the current status of these products, and the state of the market, and the well-known challenges, I expect to see some rapid, laser-focused changes from PeopleCert already in 2021.
Making a profit while doing good
In a way, perhaps, PeopleCert needs to game their own system to succeed. They could steer the development of the content of the portfolio purely in the ‘which exams can we sell best’ direction, but that will quickly dilute the portfolio and make it vulnerable to (pop-up) competition. This would shift the current market into an ephemeral state, which in turn is likely to have a significant negative impact on the perceived value of qualifications.
To keep the competitive edge, and sell an increasing number of exams, they need to make sure that the content of the products is increasingly seen as valuable, not just the exams based on this content. They need to invest, in that sense, indirectly to make sure the direct profit from exams is achieved.
For 20+ years, most people who have taken ITIL and PRINCE2 exams are familiar only with the parts that are examined, not with the whole guidance. A lot of valuable content has been hidden on those pages that even many trainers haven’t read. This is pure waste and a shame. PeopleCert needs to decide whether to trim the content to examinable-only (because there are still costs associated with write-only content) or redesign the qualification programme by keeping and then examining based on more content.
For even longer, a lot of direct and indirect sales of ITIL and PRINCE2 exams have been done by both the trainers (through Accredited Training Organisations (ATOs)) and consultants. Due to market dynamics and sometimes the uncanny influence of single individuals, the collaboration between custodians of the best practice and those teaching this has worsened over time. Many ATOs have been unhappy for a long time (both with the custodians and with the EIs) and many consultants feel neglected.
The popularity of these frameworks and methods around the world is not due to the marketing and sales efforts of the Cabinet Office, but thanks to the contributors to published content, exam-writers, trainers, and consultants. Thanks to practitioners who have found the guidance useful.
If PeopleCert wants to keep the golden goose alive and happy, the ties and daily collaboration with the wider industry and the communities need to improve. Not only is this a much-needed approach for the practitioner community, but it’s also a wise business move. A strong partner network and practitioner-ambassadors around the world will be crucial to making the necessary changes and achieving the much-needed growth.
Although I’m not active in this space anymore, I will be following the developments with great interest. The global ITSM community is very close to my heart and I think they deserve more. Perhaps now is the time.