Why the Court of Master Sommeliers Made the Right Decision

By Steve Nunn, President and CEO, The Open Group

Some of you may not know this about me, but I’m a wine fan. I don’t just enjoy drinking it, but I also enjoy learning about (and visiting!) the different grapes, and wine regions of the world. Indeed, a good friend of mine is studying for his Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), Level 3 exams – not because he wants to work as a sommelier like many who take that course, but for his personal further enjoyment of wine! My wife and I have been on several “educational” wine trips with he and his wife, so I know how hard and how regularly he is studying for these. So when a cheating scandal rocked the world of Master Sommeliers last September, I was doubly curious about what happened, both on a personal and professional level.

According to news reports, a member of the Court of Master Sommeliers and proctor for the Master Sommelier Exam leaked information about the blind tasting portion of the exam to an unknown number of examinees. As a result, 23 newly minted Master Sommeliers were stripped of their titles.

A notoriously difficult exam that tests wine knowledge, service skills, and the ability to taste and identify wines “blind,” the assessment to become a Master Sommelier can take years and multiple tries to pass. Prior to the scandal, there were only 249 individuals in the world who had passed the exam. When a record 24 passed the test this past September, it must have raised suspicion.

After hearing about the incident, I had two immediate reactions. The first was sympathy for those who had spent years and thousands of dollars preparing for the exam—how difficult it must have been for them to have their title taken away, especially after all their hard work and preparation for the test. That must have been devastating for them.

However, as someone who runs an organization that is a certification authority for a number of professional and product certification programs, the more I thought about it, I had to agree with the outcome. The Court of Master Sommeliers made the right decision. In fact, they didn’t really have a choice.

Why do I say that? Because, when it comes to being a certification authority, it is up to you to maintain the integrity of your certification program. If the titles for those 23 people (one person had already passed the tasting the previous year and was able to keep their title) had been upheld, it would have called into question the entire profession and their standards. For the protection of any certification program, the certification has to really mean something, and the integrity of the certificate ultimately must be upheld.

At The Open Group, we’re actually no strangers to these type of issues. Thankfully, we’ve rarely had to take a certification away once it was granted, but we’ve certainly run across irregularities in some of our exam results from time to time, and we’ve taken action before a certification was granted. We’ve also had instances where exam questions have popped up on different websites across the internet. In those cases, we’ve had to ask the sites to take the questions down on the grounds of trademark or copyright infringement.

For most of the professionals who take our exams, there is certainly a lot less at stake than for a test like the Master Sommelier exam. Unlike sommeliers, Enterprise Architects don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on rare wines—or in this case, study guides, practice tests, etc. —to make sure they can identify them.

In our industry, more often than not, employers pay for their employees to take the exam, and, if someone takes one of our accredited training courses, often the cost of the exam is included in the overall cost of the course. For practitioners seeking certification through our Open Professions Program, it’s pretty difficult to cheat one’s way through the process because it includes a detailed defense of what you’ve done throughout your career. (This is probably why the blind tasting portion of the sommelier exam was the only portion where participants could actually cheat—examinees couldn’t have cheated their way through a test of their service skills or an oral defense of their wine knowledge.)

Despite this unfortunate incident in the wine industry, certifications remain an important indicator of professional knowledge, no matter the industry. Certifications show that an individual knows what they are doing and that they have hard-earned skills in the role they are performing. It’s also an indicator that the person is willing to take the pains of going through an exam process to advance their career. It’s a commitment  to both one’s personal and professional development.

From an employer’s point of view, having certified professionals on staff provides some level of guarantee that they have a knowledgeable, skilled workforce. This can be particularly important for consultancies that are pitching their services to customers. Increasingly, customers are actually asking for professionals who carry top certifications to work on business transformation projects. This independent third-party type of certification, like those The Open Group provides, can often be more meaningful in the marketplace than certifications granted by vendors.

In addition, certifications tend to give the individuals who have them a leg up on the competition. According to the Foote Report, The Open Group has three of the top 10, most in-demand certifications in the IT industry. What surveys like the Foote Report also show us is that individuals with our certifications can usually command a higher salary than those that don’t have the certification—it puts the practitioner in a better position to command a better remuneration package.

And it’s not just professional certifications that can be at jeopardy in such situations. When it comes to product certifications, the stakes can actually be very high. If a product certification is violated, that can mean life and death in situations where products can affect people’s safety, as in the case of things like medical equipment, military systems, or even those Hoverboards that were catching fire and putting consumers at risk a few years ago. That’s why The Open Group product certifications follow three tenets of certification. When we certify products, we guarantee that a product meets the standard when it’s certified, that it will continue to meet the standard while it is certified, and, if for any reason during that time the product does not or is found not to meet the standard, it will be corrected so the product does meet the standard within a defined period of time.

If practitioners can effectively “buy” a certification, or if a certification authority doesn’t address allegations of cheating, like what happened with the Master Sommelier scandal, that certification doesn’t mean much and the entire program is at risk. As the authority behind a certification program, you must do what it takes to uphold the integrity of that program, even if that means some individuals have to re-take an exam (which we have also done), or taking away a coveted title. At the end of the day, it is the integrity of the certification that must win out.

http://www.opengroup.org  @theopengroup

Steve Nunn is President and CEO of The Open Group – a global consortium that enables the achievement of business objectives through technology standards. He is also President of the Association of Enterprise Architects (AEA).

Steve joined The Open Group in 1993, spending the majority of his time as Chief Operating Officer and General Counsel.   He was also CEO of the AEA from 2010 until 2015.

Steve is a lawyer by training, has an L.L.B. (Hons) in Law with French and retains a current legal practicing certificate.  Having spent most of his life in the UK, Steve has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 2007. He enjoys spending time with his family, walking, playing golf, 80s music, and is a lifelong West Ham United fan.


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