Course Review: Certificate in Digital Trade Strategy (CDTS)

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The ICC Academy has launched a new certification programme titled “Certificate in Digital Trade Strategy”. I recently completed the course and thought I’d share my takeaways in this brief post. As a practitioner in the field of digital trade finance innovation, I’m hoping my perspective can help you assess whether the course would be useful to you as well.

(Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer or any organisation with which I am associated)

The subject of digitalisation dominates most, if not all, conversations around the advancement of global trade and trade finance. Consider the following scenarios:  

  • A logistics company looking to optimise process integration and improve end-to-end visibility in the supply chain;
  • A warehouse attempting to streamline stock reconciliation;
  • A manufacturer striving to combine existing data with new information to meet its sustainability goals while growing their exports;
  • A bank wanting to reduce the time and cost involved in a transaction by reducing the number of physical documents required from customers;
  • A governmental agency trying to combat trade-based money laundering;
  • A development finance institution working to reduce obstacles faced by SME businesses when attempting to access financing.   

To address any one of these challenges, you would undoubtedly be looking toward technological solutions. But where would you start? What have others done before and have they been successful? What regulatory, legal and other practical considerations will you have to take into account? Does the technology you need even exist? This is what the ICC Academy, ICC Digital Standards Initiative, and Trade Finance Global aim to cover with their new certification programme, the Certificate in Digital Trade Strategy (CDTS). As a full-time professional in this space (on the banking side), I got curious and decided to check it out for myself. Admittedly somewhat sceptical that the ICC Academy would manage to cover the topics in sufficient detail to be of much practical use, I had two objectives in doing the course:

  1. Satisfy my curiosity while simultaneously generating some useful material for; and
  2. Cover gaps in my knowledge of digital trade innovation (if any!).

How is the course structured?

Before sharing my thoughts on the content, let me give you an overview of the course. According to the official course brochure “The Certificate in Digital Trade Strategy is designed to give you a complete, end-to-end picture of what is needed to digitise your trade and supply chain processes”. It is intended for senior staff at shipping companies and carriers, fintechs, banks, and policy makers. Through five modules, each consisting of 4-6 lessons, and a final, live-proctored exam, the learner will gain a “deep, macro-level understanding” of the following topics:

  1. The architecture of international trade and supply chains
  2. Critical challenges associated with digitising trade and trade finance
  3. The making of an enabling legal environment for digital trade
  4. Exchanging trade and supply chain data in a trusted environment
  5. Interoperability frameworks – putting it together

After finishing the course, the learner registers for a live-proctored exam that must be completed online. The passing grade is 70% minimum and upon successful completion, the learner is issued a downloadable certificate.

Who are the instructors?

The instructors are leading experts in the field of digital trade and familiar faces to those working in the industry. They are heads of digitalisation at major companies, banks, international organisations, fintechs, and so on. The ICC Academy did an excellent job recruiting instructors who represent the entire digital trade ecosystem and can speak with authority to their respective fields. Some of them have been featured on tradeXplain in the past (have a look here, here, and here). The flip side of bringing together expert practitioners is that these professionals are not necessarily educators, and some tended to use language that assumes a level of knowledge from the learner that they may not possess.

Is the course relevant?

Learning for the sake of learning is great, but when it comes to advancing your professional capabilities you also want to make sure what you are learning is relevant. Digital trade covers a range of topics, multiple independent but interconnected actors, advanced technologies, and a complex web of laws and regulations. As I mentioned earlier, I was sceptical as to whether a relatively short course would be able to provide more than a superficial introduction to the topic without omitting important details. However, by the time I had completed the course, I was delighted to conclude that this course is highly relevant to those who have an interest in digital trade, particularly those who want to obtain a high-level overview before digging into the details of their particular field of interest.

If you have visited tradeXplain before, you might recall my having said that I decided to create tradeXplain shortly after I started working in trade finance. I was frustrated with the lack of accessible and engaging content that would help me get up to speed quickly and decided I’d make a website for myself and others facing the same frustrations. Now that I have worked in the industry for many years and have a network of experts I can reach out to with questions, I no longer face those frustrations. When I started working in the field of digitalisation, I already had a good understanding of the industry. That being said, I would have found this course extremely helpful before starting my role, because it gives an overview of the whole ecosystem and the many initiatives currently in the works. If I had had limited relevant experience, as may be the case for non-trade professionals jumping straight into digital trade roles, this course would have been invaluable.

The way the course is structured, it successfully answers those questions I laid out at the beginning of this post: Where would you start? What have others done before and have they been successful? What regulatory, legal and other practical considerations will you have to take into account? Does the technology you need even exist? You can certainly answer these questions without this course by exploring other sources but you may not know where to start, you would have to assess the quality of the content you are reading, you might waste a lot of time, and so on.

What will you learn?

The brilliance of this course is its ability to outline the context in which the digitalisation of trade is occurring. After a succinct explanation of how the global trading system, supply chains, and the actors involved, the course explains why it has been difficult to digitalise trade and what challenges each actor is facing – at the level of the organisation and for the ecosystem as a whole. Two areas in particular are highlighted: The first is the lack of an enforceable legal framework that give ecosystem participants comfort to rely on digital trade documents or data. The second is the lack of interoperability between different systems and platforms, and an explanation of how this has lead to industry fragmentation.

Beyond a high-level understanding of the industry challenges and context, these were the key learning outcomes in the course:

  1. The course is topical and up-to-date. The developments and initiatives discussed are front and centre for any organisation involved in digital trade. Recent news, such as the default of trade finance platform, are mentioned and put into context. The instructors shared their own views on where the industry is heading and what can be learnt from successes and failures in the last year alone. My guess is that the course will need to be updated regularly to remain as topical as it is at the time of writing.
  2. You will gain a detailed understanding of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Electronic Transferable Records. There are extensive explanations of how it is being implemented across various jurisdictions, how policy-makers are addressing the main challenges, how technology companies are positioning themselves to take advantage of the opportunities presented, and so on. Even though I follow this topic closely in my professional life, I actually learnt a lot more from this segment; for example, I was not familiar with existing legislation in Singapore that made it easier for them to implement MLETR.
  3. You will learn a lot about digital standards, including the Digital Standards Initiative (DSI). In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how extensively these developments were covered (hint: make sure to study this section well before the exam). You’ll gain an understanding of all the major standard-setting bodies, digital identifiers (you’ll even learn to recognise different barcodes and their history…), digital signatures and relevant legislation, and how this data is exchanged in a trusted matter. This is important knowledge for anyone working on digitalising trade, transport, and title documents.
  4. By the end of the course, you will have built an extensive library of resources or you’ll at least know where to find them. Guidance papers, legal agreements, data field definitions, whitepapers, and so on.

What will you not learn?

By design, the course is intended to give a high-level overview. I have already praised its ability to do so. Yet, I feel the curriculum was too light on a few topics and could have benefitted from some additional case studies.

  1. The course provided less detail on supply chain finance, working capital, payments, and other related topics than I would have liked to see. Granted, I work in banking and might have a bias, but many of the innovations discussed in the course are closely related to advancements in these areas. This is also an area that has seen major gains from digitalisation, thus it could have been featured in more detail to help learners understand what has worked well across the industry.
  2. The course does not spend much time focusing on approaches to digitalising the internal operations and commercial considerations of an organisation, although it does highlight that this is a key part of digitalising trade. Often, ecosystem-wide initiatives have limited success because they are not aligned with how organisations work internally (i.e. they have not made themselves interoperable with the processes and systems of internal organisations) or their economics don’t add up. A way this could have been addressed would have been to feature a trade finance software provider or a supply chain finance platform in more detail, and going through an end-to-end example of how it is implemented. Another approach could be to review discontinued initiatives, such as the Bank Payment Obligation (BPO) and turn those into a case study to understand why it could not scale.

The exam and some practical tips

Until I registered for and sat the exam, I did not have a good idea of what to expect. There is a site dedicated to explaining it on the ICC Academy website, but I will add some more detail. Firstly, hats off to the ICC Academy and their test partner for a professionally managed exam. I did not bring any notes to the exam itself, although the proctor informed I would have been allowed to bring hand-written notes if I wanted to. My desk was entirely clean, with only my laptop and my mouse as advised. I had to grab my laptop and show the entire room where I was sitting (including the ceiling and behind the couch…), close all doors, show myself putting my phone on the other side of the room, pull up my sleeves, and give remote access to the proctor so they could close all windows and disable any shortcuts on my laptop. (If you were planning to cheat, don’t.)

The exam questions were detailed and covered the whole curriculum, so you really do need to pay attention when studying. I had a major advantage as I was familiar with most of the topics before doing the course, and yet I’m not sure I would have passed the exam if I hadn’t done the course first. If your job is not directly related to digital trade, you will want to spend a lot of time internalising the knowledge and might want to revisit some of the more difficult sections.

Some things to keep in mind when doing the course itself: allow pop-ups on your browser, take notes, and download the materials for future reference. Some other advice if you want to keep learning about digital trade is to follow the instructors on LinkedIn and other media, as they often share good content.

Once you’ve completed the course and passed the exam, make sure to download your certificate and register on the ICC Academy Alumni page.


Is the Certificate in Digital Trade Strategy (CDTS) worth doing? If you are curious about digital trade innovation, looking to enter the field professionally, or want to make sure your organisation is doing what it should be doing to future-proof it and gain from new opportunities – then absolutely. And if you’re already an expert? You might benefit from taking a step back, filling some knowledge gaps, and understanding the perspectives of other ecosystem participants. Good luck and enjoy!