Open Recognition and its Enemies (3) — Informal recognition in the Walhalla of Badges

In my previous post I tried to find resources on how recognition works within the field of informal learning. Unfortunately I felt as though I was swimming against a strong current that kept me away from the shore. The ideas of recognition, validation, standards and accreditation of informal learning, not to mention quality assurance, are so entangled that we tend to forget that recognition has a life of its own and that validation and accreditation are only means at the service of one specific form of recognition: formal recognition.

Recognition is a social process and we need to understand whether Open Badges are as effective at supporting formal and informal recognition. And if not, what would be needed to support both forms of recognition as effectively?

Informal recognition in the Walhalla of Badges

To move my quest forward, I then went for a new search: “informal recognition” (with the quotes) that led this time to 66,400 results. Looking at the books tab, at the top of the list I could read: Giving and Receiving Performance Feedback, 2016 Federal Benefits Handbook [?!?!?!] and 99 Ways to Keep Employees Happy, Satisfied, Motivated and Productive

Then, scouring Web links, I did find many more documents related to the recognition of employees, several explaining how informal recognition is often a better alternative to pay raise (“cheaper” is the argument that should win the heart of cheap and mean managers!). As in the world of Open Badges, many authors conflate the words recognition, rewards and awards

I might have missed interesting entries but I must confess that I got rapidly bored… until… page 4 where I stumbled on an entry from the River Valley’s Girl Scouts. I told myself, well, if Scouts are the reference to Open Badges practitioners, I might get lucky and find a worthwhile contribution to my quest. Here is what they write about informal recognition:

Informal Recognition

Though formal awards are nice, they are not the only form of important recognition. Informal recognition is equally as important. A simple thank you, compliment on Facebook, or a card are a few ways you can let a volunteer know their work matters. Formal awards are not meant to be used as an annual recognition for all volunteers. They are intended as a way to recognize and honor those volunteers who have truly gone “above and beyond” by providing exemplary, measurable service in support of delivering the Girl Scout Leadership Experience.

Ways to Thank

Simple efforts like a verbal thanks, a thank you card or a compliment on Facebook can be great way to thank a volunteer. Here are more ideas:

    • Share their story with our communications team. We may feature them on our blog, social networks, and publications.
    • Send a thank you note
    • Give a gift – small, homemade gifts can be very meaningful
    • Provide mentoring opportunities
    • Develop their leadership skills
    • Share positive feedback
    • Be a professional reference
    • Recommend them on LinkedIn
    • Ask them to recruit others
    • Promote them to new roles”


Although this text is part of the subsection “Adult Awards” I asked myself: but where are those freaking badges? Can people be recognised without a badge? In the Mecca [change for another faith’s or atheist’s landmark] of Badges? That can’t be true! Yes, it was. For Girl Scouts, at least those in River Valley, badges are not used for informal recognition. Does it mean that badge usage is or should be limited to formal recognition?

What could be reasonably elicited from River Valley’s Girl Scouts writings is:

  • informal recognition is central to a healthy community;
  • informal recognition is a means for individuals and the community to grow;
  • informal recognition can be as simple as a “thank you”;
  • informal recognition is personal;
  • informal recognition is oriented towards the future;
  • informal recognition does not require badges [but they might help… or… hinder. More on that later…]

There are probably more ideas, but that will do for a first round. Now the question is: if the goal of Open Badges is to recognise learning and achievements, why do Girl Scouts not use them for informal recognition in that context (i.e. adult volunteers)? May be Badges do not look adult enough? That is a possibility we should not exclude. Or is it the desire to use different recognition codes for youngsters and adults? That would make sense, after all, adults using the language and dressing code of youngsters can be an embarrassment to youngsters and adults alike. Adults not using badges might be a sign of respect for youngsters’ codes.

Anyhow, the River Valley’s Girl Scout confirm that informal recognition exists and plays an important role in the life of their organisation. On the other hand, Open Badges do not seem to be of value to informal recognition (even in the Bethlehem of badges!).

I then decided to imagine that I was convened to an Open Badge workshop by the River Valley’s Girl Scouts leadership. Our mission was to find answers to: how could badges help recognise the commitments, learning and achievements of adult volunteers? What would be the benefits in comparison to the current situation? Conversely, what could they do that might have adverse effects on our community?

N.B.: going back to the Open Badge workshops I have run over the last three years, I never considered the potential adversarial effect of badges at a systemic level. An alarm bell rang when I heard the words “rewards,” “incentives” or “gamification” (Pavlov!) but that was it. For the next workshops I should create a Badge Hazards Notice listing all the things that might go wrong with badges at the micro, meso and macro levels—while concentrating the efforts of the workshop on the good they can do. And they can do a lot of good —if one doesn’t forget to read thoroughly the Badge Hazards Notice first!

Here is the short version of my initial contribution to the (fictional) workshop. It’s not the final version, just an ice breaker to open the conversation:

  1. My understanding is that badges have been used by Scouts to formally recognise personal achievements and reinforce the bonds within the community.
  2. How could we use badges (or something like badges) to recognise individuals informally. To use your own writings, here is what I suggest:
    • Share a story: invite the person to write the story, help or find help to write the story, then endorse the story and invite others to endorse the story;
    • Send a thank you note: endorse that person—and tell why;
    • Give a small, homemade gift: endorse that person—and write something personal to show that you care for that person; verses can make it more personal!
    • Provide mentoring opportunities: endorse that person as a mentee; get endorsed as a mentor; endorse mentee’s experiences; share the learning journey as a story;
    • Develop their leadership skills: endorse these people for their existing and potential leadership skills; work with them and endorse their experiences — they can endorses yours;
    • Share positive feedback: endorse that person, tell why and invite others to endorse the endorsement and/or that person;
    • Be a professional reference: endorse that person, tell why;
    • Recommend them on LinkedIn: endorse that person, tell why;
      • Ask them to recruit others: invite them to endorse others and get endorsements to complete their profiles;
    • Promote them to new roles: create badges representing the different roles so people have a clear view of what are the competencies and requirements for the role. Use badges as a means to manage volunteer “career.”

What’s new?

    • Informal recognition is now visible within and beyond the River Valley’s Girl Scouts;
    • Endorsements are a standard representation that can be exploited to provide new services;
    • Volunteers can claim a “Volunteer” badge which is then reviewed by the volunteers that already have that badge;
    • The reputation gained within the River Valley’s Girl Scouts can be exploited for other social or professional positions (and conversely).

How to do it?

Use the endorsement feature of the 2.0 badges: give all volunteers a Volunteer Badge that will be used to collect generic endorsements:

  • Create a library of generic badges (e.g. thank you badge) that people can give to others
  • Use the features of advanced Open Badge platforms that allow the issuing of badges based on community members, e.g. “to get badge XYZ the application needs to be approved by 3 other community members who already have badge XYZ and badge EFG.”

Wait another 6 months and you will have the possibility to issue Open Endorsements or give Bits of Trust that are like badges, but lighter to implement and exploit and even more powerful!

Some ideas were rejected, better ones generated, but the point I wanted to make at this stage is that endorsement sounds like a natural way to recognise informally. With the new Open Badge version (2.0) it is now possible to endorse badges once they have been issued. It is an important step forward to make informal recognition visible.

Making informal recognition visible

More search on Google (with quotes):

  • “open badges”: 224,000 entries
  • “open badges” “micro credentials” 76,400 (34% of first search)
  • “open badges” “credentials” 168,000 (75% of first search)

Open Badges have demonstrated their value in making informal learning visible, mainly through formal recognition processes. The much touted micro-credentials, are just another envelop to carry a formal recognition. Even the Scout badges are formal recognition tokens issued and valued within their community— what makes a formal recognition formal, is the type of process involved, not where it takes place, so formal recognitions can be issued outside of the formal sector.

While we have developed policies and tools to make informal learning visible (mainly through formal recognition), Open Badges are probably the most advanced and flexible tool to achieve that goal. In doing so, Open Badges have been mainly used to expand the field of formal recognition.

Could Open Badges be used to support informal recognition just as well as formal recognition?

To make informal recognition visible using Open Badges, one way could be to have a platform, like those used to send birthday or condolence cards, with a set of predefined badges:

  • Thank you!
  • Great job!
  • Thank you for your participation! sent to the participants after an event / conference / meeting
  • Thank you for your contribution! sent to a person or a group
  • I recommend you for […]
  • Employee of the Month/Quarter/Year. to be endorsed by peers, clients, etc.
  • Job certificate created by an employer when an employee leaves
  • Work placement certificate

This is just a very small sample of what could be done (or not!) to facilitate informal recognition using a standard format, an Open Badge, to encapsulate it. The picture of the badge could be related to the content of the endorsement, with the endorser’s picture, name, identifier or signature.

Of course, informal endorsements is by nature more prone to bogus endorsements than badges issued by an ‘authority’. Yet there are mechanisms that should allow the minimisation of risks such as spams — for example, decide that an endorsement is considered valid, only if accepted (endorsed) by the recipient.

Another option is provided with the Open Badge 2.0 specification: endorsement. If the person to be endorsed already has one or more badges, it is possible to endorse a badge previously earned by that person.

The next step should be the possibility to endorse a person (or any identifiable entity) who doesn’t have a badge or an account in a badge platform. We are working on it…

Next post: The Open Recognition and its Enemies (4) — Quality Assurance

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