Being a professional and belonging to a profession

Tuesday 21 June, 2016

Everyone seems to be a professional these days.

Footballers are referred to as professional, sales people are professionals and hairdressers are now professional stylists.

CQUniversity Associate Professor and MBA Director Michael Segon says we also seem to suggest that being a professional is only concerned with behaviour at work or related solely to our jobs and that what we do outside of our job has little bearing with regards being a professional.

But what does it mean to be a professional and belong to a profession? Is the only requirement that one is paid for effort?

There is a difference being having an occupation and being a member of a true profession.

An occupation is simply a job where as a profession is actually far more substantive. We have incorrectly used the term “profession” and “professional” to basically refer to any type of paid labour that may or may not require a degree of skill or expertise.

Historically, the concept of professions grew out of the guilds of the middle ages.  Guilds were associations of artisans, tradesmen, craftsmen and stonemasons.

These groups typically were bound by the geography of the town in which they lived and worked and the purpose of the guild was to regulate their occupation - in effect setting standards and the means by which people became artisans, craftsmen musicians.

A clear example is the people who build structures, buildings bridges - the “ingenious” ones”. Today we refer to these as “engineers”.

These guilds evolved becoming more prescriptive about standards, the length of apprenticeships and through controlling access they were also able to insure high returns for their labour.

True professions similarly emerged as a means of insuring knowledge and standards were maintained and that entry to the profession was restricted.

An early attempt to define a profession was made by Abraham Flexner in 1910 that attempted to describe the process of educating medical practitioner in the United States and Canada.

According to Flexner (1910) to qualify as a profession an occupation had to satisfy a number of criteria:

•             Possess and draw upon a store of knowledge that was more ordinary than complex

•             Secure a theoretical grasp of the phenomenon with which it dealt

•             Apply its theoretical and complex knowledge to the practical solution of human and social problems

•             Strive to add and improve its stock of knowledge

•             Pass on what it knew to novice generations, not in a haphazard fashion but deliberately and formally

•             Establish criteria of admission, legitimate practice and proper conduct and

•             Be imbued with altruistic spirit.

A more recent perspective by Khurana, Nohria and Penrice (2005) suggest four criteria for calling an occupation a bona fide profession including;

•             A common body of knowledge resting on a well-developed, widely accepted theoretical base;

•             A system for certifying that individuals possess such knowledge before being licensed or otherwise allowed to practice;

•             A commitment to use specialised knowledge for the public good, and a renunciation of the goal of profit-maximisation, in return for professional autonomy and monopoly power; and

•             A code of ethics, with provisions for monitoring individual compliance with the code and a system of sanctions for enforcing it.

These characteristics clearly suggest that many of the jobs and careers we refer to, as “professions” are not true professions at all.

Take management: is there a consistent educational qualification that one must acquire to be a manager? The answer is no.

Is there an association that represents managers - yes, the Australian Institute of Management - but its membership is fee-based and while it does have a code of conduct this is voluntary.

There is no licensing system for managers, unlike for lawyers, doctors and some engineers, so manager who fail to meet standards or break aspects of the code do not necessarily suffer consequences such as fines or a removal of the right to practice.

While it would be extremely difficult to make true professions of many of the occupations it does not mean that we can’t expect people to act professionally.

Moreover adopting “professional standards and behaviours” will actually be of assistance not only to individuals but organisations through more respectful interactions with others - better product and service deliver to customers and a conscious commitment to following the rules, practices, laws and codes.

Who knows, we might even get footballers to start abiding by the rules and reduce the need to have referees and umpires.


Webinar, June 24: Rethinking Professionalism

Join CQUniversity’s MBA Director, Michael Segon as he discusses what defines a professional in the modern day and the standards which should be demonstrated.

Register here


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