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Is there merit in a merit award?
By Wendy Sears -- January 22, 2003
One of more the pleasurable aspects of running an award program is the ability to present an award to a website designer in acknowledgement of hard work.

But the question is often asked, 'Can a Merit Award' presented to an award applicant, be seen more as a patronising slap in the face than an acknowledgement of hard work?'

Wendy Sears

Nothing is laid down in stone.

There is nothing prescriptive about how many awards a site can provide to award seekers. There are no guide books, no tomes, no scrolls of wisdom dictating that the presentation of one award is good and the presentation of fifteen is bad. It is for each award giver to decide their own criteria and the rewards for meeting those criteria. Some programs will offer a single award. Others will operate a more complex multi-award system.

These multi-award giving programs, of which my own program is one, have become popular. They are popular with award givers who desire to honour various levels of talent on the internet or various specialisms. For award seekers multi-award programs afford them an opportunity to receive some recognition of hard work, even where they themselves admit that their craft is far from perfected.

Awards presented by multi-award programs can vary in size and style but they have one thing in common - they follow a hierarchical pattern, from the highest to the lowest. (For example: gold, silver, bronze; or level 1, level 2, level 3 or even star 1, star 2, star 3.)  Over the years however, merit awards have begun to emerge. Whatever the original intent of merit awards, their creation and evolution has resulted in a degree of confusion in the minds of some award givers and seekers.

The question is 'what is the purpose of a merit award? Does it serve any useful function within an award program? Is it ever worth giving or attaining?

Just what is this Merit award anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines merit as 'a thing that entitles one to reward'. Award managers would say that they give merit awards because they feel that the recipients are entitled to them in some way. But it is the way in which this entitlement arises that can give rise to confusion. Upon what basis is the merit award given? I believe that the answer to this question determines the significance of a merit award within an awards program.

Let us, for a moment, go back to the principle of multiple awards. If a person attains the top award it is because they have met specific criteria wholly or in some considerable part. Their achievement is quantifiable in some way. Often the value that people place on awards attained is based on the measurability of that award. If an award seeker knows that they have attained 95 out of 100 points or seven out of eight stars, then this gives the achievement meaning. Therefore it could be argued that for a merit award to have meaning, its provision should also be based on some quantifiable criteria. For example attaining between 60 and 70 points or one out of seven stars.

The problems arise where the provision of merit awards are not dependant on the meeting of criteria....where awards are given to sites that narrowly fail to meet the criteria or to sites that merely show promise. Such awards can be seen as the second class citizens of an award program. To draw an analogy, attaining a top award would be like being allocated a seat in the first class compartment of a state of the art train. Attaining a merit award would be comparable to being seated on another train of a lesser standard, running parallel to the first. Recipients might feel that such awards have very little intrinsic or motivational value.

Inconsistency in approach

Perhaps the problem with merit awards is not the award itself, but the inconsistency of approach, which contributes to its devaluation. The use and function of a merit award can vary from one award program to another. Most people, upon receiving a gold award would recognise this as evidence of some high achievement, even where the gold award is not the top award. But the merit award is used in so many different ways by so many different award programs, that confusion reigns.

I am normally not an advocate of standardisation and would not suggest that we need to be prescriptive about the function of a merit award. I believe there is scope for a degree of flexibility within award programs. However, to improve the status of the merit award I believe that award programs should consider carefully the reasons for employing such an award within their program, and perhaps - just perhaps - adopt a more uniform approach to these awards.

So what can be done?

I believe strongly that merit awards can be a valuable asset to an award program and can have value in the minds of award seekers; However for value to exist, the basis upon which it is awarded and received needs to be clear. I would suggest that:

  1. If an award program wishes to recognise sites for the promise they show, rather than the meeting of any specific criteria, then rather than muddying the waters with the presentation of a merit award, a graphical gift should be offered, which can be accepted or rejected by the recipient.

  2. If an award program wishes to recognise how close a site came to attaining an award, then why not simply treat the merit award as another tier to the award program.  Rather than providing a merit award for sites that 'narrowly' miss criteria, simply create a fixed point system for the acquisition of the merit award. In this way a value is attached  to the award which is definite and less nebulous.

In conclusion

At the end of the day an award giver cannot legislate for the thoughts and emotions of those that are offered awards. Some recipients will value their merit awards, whether provided by high rated award programs or new programs. Others will feel always feel undervalued irrespective of whether their award is merit or silver.

All that the award giver can do is to think about the purpose that the merit award serves within his program and to make that purpose clear. In that way, award seekers that read the award program's purpose and criteria and who make a conscious, informed decision to press the submit button, can have little cause for concern at the receipt of a merit award.

Copyright 2003
All Rights Reserved
Wendy Sears

About the Author
Wendy is a law graduate who is currently employed as a health and safety adviser for local government in England. She has been creating websites for over three years and was the awards manager for the retired Assess Risk Website Awards program. She is an advocate of computers for all, from 9 to 90, and believes we have only just begun to scratch the surface of this media's potential. She also believe that there is such a wealth of talent out there that remains untapped because of a misguided belief that the internet is the sole province of the pre-pubescent. It is a pleasure to correct this myth where-ever she hears it espoused.

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