A passionate advocate for the global association community, Peter O’Neil is a seasoned leader known for transforming organizations by creating high-performing, diverse, and inclusive teams and cultures. Since 2016, he has been CEO of ASIS International, which serves over 30,000 security management professionals from around the globe.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, co-host Jeff Cobb talks with Peter about the important role associations play both in society and in lifelong learning. They also discuss certificates, certifications, what it takes to be an effective international organization, and ASIS’s focus on four pillars: global, mobile, digital, and agile.
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[00:00] – Intro
[01:26] – Tell us about the work that ASIS International does and your role there.
ASIS International has a $30-million annual operating budget and usually about 90 staff. ASIS is heavily content-driven and live-meeting-driven (when you could have live meetings pre-COVID). ASIS has been working on digital and has a robust certification practice. ASIS publishes an award-winning monthly magazine and has a strong research arm.
The Role of Associations in Society
[02:26] – What’s your perspective on the role that associations play in society? And how have you seen that change?
Peter has been working for associations for 28 years, serving in various roles. Associations advance the world. Without associations, society wouldn’t have the standards, guidelines, certifications, content, and content experts bundling and putting together learning (digital, live, asynchronous, synchronous). We wouldn’t see the level of adult education that exists see globally without associations. The American Society of Association Executive (ASAE) has worked to spread the message about the Power of Associations (previously called Power of A).
I think during COVID our challenge has been how do we package and deliver in ways that are better, different, and more. We talk at ASIS about being global, mobile, digital, and agile. Those have been our four pillars since I came to ASIS in 2016, and everything we do honors global, mobile, digital, and agile to one degree or another.Peter O’Neil
From a change perspective, COVID has amped up the focus on digital, mobile, and global. Associations have to be able to sustain what they’re doing and get it out to more and more people.
ASIS Certificates and Certifications
[04:59] – What types of certifications and other credentials does ASIS provide? What education and training does it provide?
As a former certification guy, Peter talks about ION and E—certificate and certification—because so many people, even in the credentialing space, confuse the two.
ASIS runs four global certification programs that broadly serve the security management profession. ASIS also offers certificates of completion, and it’s looking hard at microcredentials to see if the market would support ASIS offering those. ASIS works hard in the standards and guidelines space, but it doesn’t accredit right now. The business model hasn’t been strong enough for ASIS to do that yet, but they’ll continue to look at it.
Using Data to Drive Certifications
[08:03] – How do you ensure that your certifications remain relevant and valued by employers and by the practitioners who earn them? How did you determine when a new certification is needed?
ASIS always looks at the data and what the marketplace is telling them it wants. Beyond only listening to members, ASIS seeks out data points on broader macro trends and macro security trends and how those relate to ASIS.
Peter likes to look at data in different scenarios. He likes to find sweet spots in a Venn diagram so that, no matter what scenario plays out, the data suggests a certificate, microcredential, or certification. ASIS looks hard at macro data and also micro data and tries to figure out the opportunity.
Every association has a product, service, certification, or certificate program that, if they didn’t offer it, nobody else would—sometimes you can’t not offer it. But it’s always about the data, what the market is doing, what’s happening, micro and macro, and then making the best business choices you can.
Increasing Demand for Certificates and Certifications
[11:19] – Have you seen the demand for certificates go up in recent history?
The demand has gone up recently, especially during COVID, although the demand was there before the pandemic. During COVID, like a lot of other organizations with certificate and certification programs, ASIS saw a big uptick in people submitting applications and buying cert prep products. It’ll be interesting to see if that can be sustained or not.
[12:00] – Do you ascribe the increased demand for certificates and certifications to the turmoil in the employment market that COVID and other forces have created? Or was it just that people had more time on their hands?
It’s all the above. Some people lost their jobs during COVID, so they had time on their hands. Some people were shifting to remote work and perhaps found time on their hands. People also started looking at how they could differentiate themselves in the marketplace. As Peter often says to his kids, you’ve got to have differentiators on your job resume the same way you had to have differentiators on your college resume to get into college.
I think that certifications are differentiators for people in the marketplace. They can’t hurt. I’ve never known a certification to hurt or a certificate to hurt. I’ve known them to help. And I’ve known in some cases, where you get two candidates, Jeff Cobb and Peter O’Neil, if they’re exactly neck in neck, and Jeff Cobb is certified, guess who gets the job?”Peter O’Neil
COVID pushed some individuals to finally go earn a certificate, certification, or other credential. Peter jokes with his team about COVID leftovers and COVID hangovers. Everyone loves a leftover; no one loves a hangover. Peter hopes a COVID leftover will be that more and more people continue to see the value in certification and certificate programs, not just because it’s a money generator for ASIS but because professionally it’s the right thing to do.
Challenges and Opportunities As an International Organization
[14:23] – What are the particular challenges or opportunities as an international organization when it comes to certification, certificates, and supporting people with content?
Being international truly is different, and it’s more complex and costly. The four credentials at ASIS International offers were built to be geography-agnostic, so they don’t have a lot of U.S.-centric regulations in them. ASIS is ANSI-recognized in three of the four certifications they offer. ASIS goes through a job task analysis every five years to make sure their exams are the latest and greatest.
The other piece of global complexity is languages. The board has said ASIS is an English-first organization, so they don’t translate everything they do to other languages. When you go to multiple languages, you your costs increase, and the financial recovery time can be longer as a result.
Some professions and trades can treat the globe the same, and some can’t. For example, ASIS can’t charge someone in the Middle East, North Africa, or sub-Saharan Africa Western rates and expect to get a volume of buyers. Global organizations have to balance this for their bottom line. Just because associations are nonprofits that doesn’t mean they don’t have to make money.
[18:03] – How is the test preparation for the ASIS certification exams handled? Is it through a network of providers that ASIS sanctions, or do you provide any of that yourself? How much is happening online versus face to face?
When Peter came to ASIS International in 2016, the association didn’t own its own certification preparation (cert prep) materials. However, in the last few years, they have begun to license preferred providers. ASIS launched that after COVID, so it’s been a little slower to market. There are companies that offer their own cert prep programs for ASIS certifications, but ASIS doesn’t endorse them.
Through its 501(c)(3), ASIS has a large global chapter structure, and they are working with their foundation to provide scholarships to chapters to use the cert prep materials at a reduced rate. They already offer the materials to chapter leadership to provide cert prep courses in their local chapters at a significantly reduced rate, but, in some cases, it’s still not low enough.
It’s important to make sure there’s equitable access to the information and knowledge. Much was going online anyway, but they’ve had to amp that up more during COVID (COVID leftover!). Almost anything they do now is built to be online as much as face-to-face.
There is also a firewall between the training and the certification piece of what ASIS does. Their certification team sits in a figurative bubble, and Peter, as CEO, can’t access those systems. For anyone with certification programs like ASIS does, it’s imperative to have a strong wall between the training and certifications activities to make sure nothing coercive is being done.
Collaboration to Support Workforce Development Needs
[22:04] – To what extent do you collaborate with companies in the security industry to address emerging workforce development needs or make sure you’re on track in supporting career needs?
ASIS International collaborates with the trade association for the security management space wherever they can. In 2018, they launched a career pathways project, which they did in collaboration with the Security Industry Association (SIA). They have continued to build out personas related to career pathing. They also have a relationship with the Facilities Management Association (FMA), which represents a niche of the security management sector. ASIS is always looking at who wants to collaborate and what it makes sense to do with them.
[23:51] – How do you collaborate with academia and higher education institutions?
ASIS primarily collaborates with academia through its chapters, particularly where they have student chapters. ASIS has sub-communities in the security management space, but they don’t collaborate as closely with universities. There are different reasons for that.
Many individuals come into security management as a second career, so ASIS has to look at career development, career management, and certifications a little differently. ASIS has relationships with colleges and universities, but they’re not quite as deep as other organizations’.
The Role of Associations in Supporting Lifelong Learning
[27:25] – In the mainstream media, most of the focus is on what academia and the corporate sector are doing with lifelong learning. Associations are rarely mentioned. How do think association leaders—e.g., boards, executive teams—might best think about the role of their organizations in supporting the need for lifelong learning in our current world?
Oftentimes associations are partnering with academia and corporations; they’re just not the lead name. It would be phenomenal if the association space could be as visible as the others. A lot of this is a lack of awareness of the power of associations. ASAE has advocated hard on behalf of associations to be seen and heard and has tried to get government money that’s being spent on apprentice-type programs.
Why should associations not be seen, as so many of us have, for lack of a better term, apprentice-like programs that certify and certificate and train and transfer knowledge and all sorts of things? We should be qualified in there. Some of these big companies not only have their own money they’re throwing at it, they’re getting government money to also throw at it. So the question remains, why are associations not considered the same?Peter O’Neil
[30:09] – What would you like to better understand about how other association leaders are thinking about their role as providers of education, training, and credentialing?
Peter’s lucky to have built a network that lets him see what others are doing. He’s been able to partner with some of the best chief learning officers and content teams, and they come with their own impressive social networks, so they understand what’s happening in the space. It’s then a question of how what’s happening applies to ASIS and what ASIS does about it.
Peter doesn’t like the term “best practice.” He prefers “common practice.” Just because something is commonly practiced, it might not be the best thing for your organization.
Lifelong Learning: A Key Component to Success
[32:49] – You’re well networked and somebody who likes to foster learning.
Peter tries to be a lifelong learner every day, and he’s worked to create environments where people can fail, as long as they learned from the failures. His team members are continuous learners, and they understand that lifelong learning is a key component to their success.
[34:10] – Beyond your teams and networks, how do you approach your own lifelong learning? Do you have specific habits, practices, or sources?
Peter reads a lot, but across verticals. He tries to ask good questions and listen to the answers and process them to figure out how to be better or different for the organization he serves. He learns from his professional friends. It was hard during COVID when being physically present with his network wasn’t possible. He met with people and other CEOs all through the pandemic, but being virtual doesn’t replace being face to face.
[36:17] – Wrap-up
Peter O’Neil is CEO of ASIS International, a global and diverse community of security practitioners.
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