The Mediation Times


Is mediation now a commodity?

by Amanda on April 15, 2010

Special High Grade Zinc - 99.995%

I started my professional life in zinc metal production and metals trading. Special High Grade zinc which was a minimum 99.995% pure and it was the same if it was made in Canada, Belgium, Poland, China or Australia. Standardized and certified. The fun was in finding new ways to use the metal and trading the surplus. Having solved the problem of standardization we got a new one: how to differentiate ourselves in a homogeneous market. And guess what? It all came down to relationships, creativity, imagination and flexibility. Oh! I nearly forgot the biggy – trust.

Originally, zinc was produced to a minimum 98.5% and the composition of the rest depended upon the source of the concentrate (ore). Good Ordinary Brand. You needed to understand the consequences for use of the variations in the balance of the material and that needed knowledge and experience to choose the one that suited you best. Somewhere along the line, someone said “wouldn’t it be nice to have a consistent quality so we know where we are?” and so the much purer electrolytic version was born with its certificate of assurance.

The human compulsion to simplify and catalogue has always fascinated me. It seems to be in direct opposition to what people actually find fun and engaging: variety, choice and personalization and personal relevance. However, the desire to bring greater certainty so that people feel better able to use something is understandable. We just need to understand that it comes with a price.

What I do remember was that there was a much more interesting and profitable market for the less standardized, original smelted version which had infinite variety in the levels of other metals. Customers wanted this version because it resulted in a better product for them.

What if mediation ends up going the same way? Standardized and certified. I am sure there will always be the equivalent of Good Ordinary Brand.

If you would like to hear more about the whys and wherefores on the topic of certification in mediation, then check out the latest podcast from Cafe Mediate which is being recorded tonight and will be available here from 16 April. If you enjoy the podcasts, please leave a comment at the iTunes store.


Adam: Thank you for taking the time to consider the points in the post and to respond to them. I like your point about standards actually being a door to entry (as in your point about nursing standards allowing women into the medical profession). I hadn't thought of that before. I also accept your point about a certain standard which prepares you for refining your skills in the field. You are right though, trust is the issue and for mediators to support standards they need to trust the intentions that generate them.

My concern is based on having been part of several serious conversations on standards which tend to start out with high aspirations: If we demonstrate our willingness to sign up to high standards then that can only do us good as a profession. Right? Sadly there is always someone in the room with a vested commercial interest and often that can be the "state" as much as it can be someone with a training company. If the standards are set too high then the training is expensive to do and less attractive to customers. Some would say that was a good outcome! Why do 40 hours if 24 will "do"? I did a quick survey (not scientific) of the per hour cost of 40 hour courses and 24 hour courses and the lower end comes out as 'more money for less effort' for the training organisation and lower cost for 'approval' for the participant. Tick the box. Some might say that was win-win :) If those organisations can say something like "our course meets the standards for such and such body" then they are likely to keep the standard.

I tried to set some high standards for CPD (CLE) with a group of very experienced mediators in the UK. I proposed a system which meant that they could include many activities, where they got extra value for mentoring (brilliant way of keeping you on your toes) and a cycle of three years to allow for learning and integration. Everyone agreed that it was a good, comprehensive and creative system. An aspirational system. A couple of cynics even did a review of the past three years and found that they qualified. They were pleasantly surprised. The number of hours was 270 for the three year period. Even with the evidence that it was achievable, it was deemed too onerous to be adopted.

The EU Directive has prompted all the European countries to look at mediation. It is optional to impose mediation within the domestic context but several have taken the opportunity to do so because it is seen as a cost saving mechanism for the state. However, when the state takes something on it has to provide it for everyone and the increase in use demands a supply of mediators which the state then has to 'recommend'. The importance of the EU Directive has been known for a long time: some have prepared well in advance and others have been very human - leaving it to the last minute. So in some countries the only way the state could feel comfortable that there would be no comeback was if they made it part of the standards that to mediate you had to be a lawyer and if you were a lawyer then you knew all about mediation and so you wouldn't need so much training... A case argued by Bar associations and lawyer groups across the EU. The point is that this assumes that mediation requires no more than a few hours to "get".

As a trainer of many new mediators, I find that the background of a person is almost irrelevant to the essential skills. The good students are good because they have a certain attitude and aptitude which may be enhanced by the way they use their background knowledge but NOT because of their background knowledge. So in that sense I see all standards as a barrier to entry because they are seeking to select on the basis of the past and not the present. Of course the other sense of barrier to entry is based on the intention to select on any criteria which may have nothing to do with the ability to be good at the role.

It is all about intentions and effects for me.

Thanks again for your insights.



I am not sure that I buy the certification is designed to be a barrier to entry argument. A very good example of the benefits of certification can be found in nursing.

Certificate nursing programs developed in order to expedite getting people on the floor with some guarantee that they had been exposed to practical basic nursing skills. Rather than a barrier, this served as a portal for individuals (mostly women) to gain entry to the medical professions with less initial investment in time and education. In this case, the certification meant something - you had an employee that had already been exposed to basic practical skills that could be refined in the field.

As you point out at the beginning of the post, trust is the key. If the certification is not trustworthy, then it has limited (if any) value.


Credentialing and standards in the helping professions doesn't always (or even often) equate to less variety, choice and personalization and personal relevance. Consider therapy and social work, both of which have certification standards, and both of which have a set of rich and very diverse (more so than we find in mediation) forms of practice.

It's striking to me how position-centered discussions of mediation credentialing and standards often becomes. It's not difficult at all to imagine and find examples of credentialing systems that are compatible with the underlying interests of maintaining a diverse world of practice in our field.


John, thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your forthright views which I could easily argue myself. Equally, credentials and standards are designed as a filter or a barrier to entry and therefore they can indeed equate to less variety etc. That is what they are designed to be - a barrier to entry.

If we bear that in mind then we have a better chance of minimising the risk of making the mistakes that other professions have made in the past, the main one being creating a bureaucratic system that costs a lot to administer. By way of example: an insurer told me recently that if mediators were regulated you would likely add two noughts to the professional indemnity premium cost. That in itself would exclude a large number of potentially very good mediators.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tammy Lenski. Tammy Lenski said: Well said, @amandabucklow, in your post, Is Mediation Now a Commodity? [...]

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