While browsing the Microsoft SQL Server home page last week, I came across something called the SQL Server Reporting Services Skills Assessment. I had no idea what a skills assessment was, but after further research, I learned that Microsoft now offers 24 different skills assessments covering a wide variety of Microsoft products and technology, including SQL Server 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003, Microsoft Office, Windows Storage Server 2003, Visual Studio .NET, and more. So what's a skills assessment?

Microsoft's Web site says the skills assessments are a free, online method of evaluating your skills for implementing specific Microsoft business solutions. "By completing a Microsoft Skills Assessment, you will receive a Personalized Learning Plan to help you understand if you are ready to implement specific business solutions," the site explains. "Your Personalized Learning Plan will include the Microsoft Official Curriculum courses, Microsoft Press books, and Microsoft TechNet resources that will help you with your preparation." So even if you're not ready for prime time, the Learning Plan will give you the information you need to get up to speed about particular products and technologies. In addition, the skills assessment evaluation ranks your scores compared to other IT professionals who take the assessment.

I haven't spent enough time looking at the assessments and learning plans to know how useful they are, but I think that providing the evaluation and targeted resources for improving your skills is a great idea. I'm glad Microsoft is taking more responsibility for ensuring that its customers are prepared to use Microsoft products successfully in the real world. Of course, passing one of the assessments doesn't prove you're an expert. (I don't think the existing Microsoft certification process even does that.) But the skills-assessment process could be especially valuable to beginners and novices who are getting started with a particular technology and need to know what skills to learn next. Beginners have a tremendous amount of information to sort through; sometimes, the hardest step is deciding what the first step should be. Although a Personalized Learning Plan isn't a magic elixir that takes you from beginner to expert overnight, it's a useful resource if you're a novice who feels lost and adrift in a sea of information.

I'm impressed with the assessments because they show that Microsoft is focusing on solutions rather than technology. For example, one skills assessment is called "Managing the Deployment of Service Packs and Security Updates." Managing service packs and security patches might seem simple to an expert, but these tasks can be overwhelming to novices in smaller organizations. I'm sure novice administrators will appreciate having a way to check their readiness. And those who aren't ready will appreciate a Personalized Learning Plan to help fill in the gaps.

Have you taken one of the skills assessments and received a Personalized Learning Plan? If so, did the plan help you improve your knowledge and skills? I'd love to hear your experiences! You can find more information about Microsoft Skills Assessments at http://www.msmeasureup.com/test/home.asp.