Friday 12 November 2010

Business and Technology Black Belts

I've seen several references recently to black belt rankings in business and technology, similar to those used by some martial arts schools. In some martial arts (by no means all), the color of the belt used to hold one's practice jacket closed is colored to indicate student rank. Tests given in front of the class and judged by a panel of teachers are the basis for the ranking. A scheme widely used in Karate, for example, includes the sequence: white belt (the natural color of the belt) for beginners, advancing through green belt, brown belt, and black belt.

Although a recent invention, not an ancient practice (the black belt was invented by Judo's founder Jigoro Kano in the 1880's, and colored belts date back only to the early 1900s), it has caught the popular imagination, especially the black belt that indicates the first of the advanced ranks. Because of this popularity, some business and technology organizations have adopted the terminology.

For example, the manufacturing quality program Six Sigma developed by Motorola in the 1980s, ranks its practitioners as green belts (beginners), black belts (advanced), and Master Black Belts (champions and coaches).  David Allen, author of the Getting Things Done productivity system, has referred to "GTD Black Belts" in some of his talks, although he has no formal system like Six Sigma.  And another company I'm aware of, which has cloud-based process modeling software, also grants various belt rankings to the consultants who implement their methodology.

I'm not sure what to think about this, having been a student of both Judo and Aikido in the past. I remember vividly suiting up for Aikido class one night, glowing with the accomplishment of passing my last test in the MIcrosoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) series. I was sharing with the other students getting dressed, who didn't know "Microsoft-fu," that this was like a black belt in computing.

They looked at me like I just crawled out from under a rock.

I tried to explain that I knew that the black belt isn't the top or expert level, that it is in fact really the starting point (it shows you're a serious student), and that I felt the same way about achieving my Microsoft certification. Still, I got the same stony silence.

It was many years and many certification tests later that I realized that while my analogy had a certain amount of truth to it, there really is no comparison between the daily practice and dedication it takes over years to get to that "advanced beginner" stage in a martial art, and passing a series of computer-based tests that you can cram for. You can't cram for reality.

Certification programs, in general, have been criticized for not being reality-based.  Some people have advocated putting into place a certification review board, like those for other professions, in which your peers would decide if you qualify. The Microsoft Certified Architect program uses this approach. Others have promoted the idea of hands-on lab testing. The Oracle Certified Master (OCM) program is an example: it requires a two day, timed, practical test performing the kinds of activities a database administrator would be called upon to perform.

I think that identifying senior level practitioners is a useful idea, and if borrowing martial arts terminology because it's familiar makes it easier to understand, all the better. But in the words of Mr. Miyagi, the wise teacher in the Karate Kid movies:

"In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants."  

Words to live by.