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Those aren’t Department of Defense designations or the latest hip-hop playlist. Those are just a handful of the more than one dozen certifications Microsoft Corp. partners and IT executives are carting around under their credentials.

“There were so many of them that it got to the point where nobody knew what any of them meant and how one was different from another,” said Claire Schooley, an IT education analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “They had lost their meaning.”

To put meaning back in the initials, Microsoft on Monday unveiled a streamlined new certification map that will place certificate holders in one of three tiers—Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist, Microsoft Certified IT Professional or Professional Developer, and Microsoft Certified Architect—across all of its many applications, platforms, programs and subspecialties.

For partners, the certifications will also be linked to their competencies, eliminating a step many saw as redundant.

In addition, the new certification map will be more focused, ensuring specialization in specific skills, instead of an understanding of broad subjects, Microsoft and partners said.

Partners and executives should find the new system easier to navigate and better-suited to identifying a certificate holder’s actual skills, Schooley and several partners said.

“It used to be that a person would show up with a resume that said they were a MCSD [Microsoft Certified Solution Developer] and neither the business nor the [holder] knew what it truly meant,” said Karla Carter, a Microsoft Certified Trainer and private instructor of Microsoft technologies.

“Some people weren’t even aware of what the titles were and if they were, they might not know where the person’s specialty lies.”

Click here to read more about Microsoft’s attempt to push software to the SMB through Certified Public Accountants.

“To get that certification,” Carter said, “they had to pass a handful of exams in subjects not really pertaining to their actual field. So you have no idea what area they specialize in. It was harder to get the certifications, then once you had it, it was harder to prove what you knew.”

Under the new program, certification requirements will be more focused, requiring fewer and more specialized exams, Microsoft said.

A streamlined qualification process will allow quicker and cheaper educations for Microsoft students, said Jane Cage, partner and owner of Heartland Technology Solutions, of Joplin, Mo.

“I think you will see a lot more people achieving certifications,” Cage said. “If you cut a certification from eight exams to three, that may cut six months and a lot of money from the education process.”

More accessible certifications will benefit partners in at least two ways, Cage said.

“For one, it is a great marketing tool from us to clients, to let them know that we have techs certified in areas specific to their business. It adds confidence and credibility to table,” she said.

“Second, it is important in the relationship with Microsoft. When they see we’ve taken steps to gain certifications in specific areas, they know we’re serious about doing business there. That then leads to synergy and brings more to what you can offer the client.”

Qualifications are often where businesses and partners connect, said Michael Edde, president of Alpha & Omega Computer Consultants, of Murfreesburo, Tenn.

“If you’re looking for someone who does something specific, being able to declare that will be a big help,” he said.

“I’ve had many certifications, and I’ve only had a handful of customers ask for them. They want to know what you can do, and that’s it.”

Edde said he has recommended that Microsoft add an additional search feature, based on certifications, to its Small Business portal.

For businesses, having consultants and employees proficient in specific Microsoft technologies will improve performance, Schooley said.

Current certifications will continue, but new software will require certification under the new system.

The first credentials will awarded in early 2006 for partners and IT personnel working with Visual Studio 2005, SQL Server 2005 and Visual Studio 2005, SQL Server 2005, all slated to launch Nov. 7, Microsoft said.

Two exceptions, the MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) and MCSA (Microsoft Certified Systems Administrator) certifications, will continue to be recognized, said a company spokesperson.