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What do we mean by professional?

What do we mean by professional?

The below discussion is adapted from Professor Tim Morris' s entry in Y. Gabriel (ed.), Organizing Words: A Critical Thesaurus for Social and Organization Studies, Oxford University Press (2009).

The development of a so-called knowledge based society and knowledge intensive industries and technologies seem to be tailor-made for the proliferation of professions yet certain conditions in late-modernity render the concept of a profession increasingly problematic. In this short paper, I outline these conditions and offer some thoughts on how research on professions should proceed.

First, the anti-deferential ideologies of contemporary society and wider scepticism towards status claims present a challenge to occupational prestige. Yet prestige has been an important characteristic of profession creation and authority. The notion that a professional adviser is just like any other provider of a service to a dominant consumer has become more widespread. One reason for this is that professional advice has become more commoditised, as in the case of routine legal services; another reason is that some consumers/clients themselves have become very powerful and educated buyers of professional services and have increasingly defined the terms on which their professionals work for them.

At the extreme, this is said to have led to ‘client capture’ whereby the client is in such a dominant position vis-a-vis the adviser that there is a substantial risk the professional subordinates professional standards to client ends, as in the Enron case. As professional failings are subject to widespread media coverage they must surely undermine general prestige and trust: few would buy the ethical superiority argument unreservedly today and it is no accident that professions are subject to external control by regulatory bodies and statute in ways that did not occur twenty years ago.

Second, while it may be argued that a number of occupations have successfully sustained widespread acceptance of professional status, notably medicine and law, many others have initiated professionalization projects but failed to establish a secure standing. For example, McKenna (2006) argues that consulting had a peculiar process of professionalization, driven by elite firms rather than individual consultants, and that this influenced the extent to which the sector as a whole could subsequently lay claim to professional status.

In addition, others have shown how the growth of new forms of professional work, focussed around independent contracting for example in areas such as software development, have disturbed the traditional relationships between the individual professional and the organizations in which they trained and maintained a community of practice, including professional institutes and firms (Barley and Kunda 2006).

Third, certain technological innovations have facilitated the spread of ‘expert’ knowledge. Internet search engines and popular books allow the rapid diagnosis of a range of problems from medical to legal to social that were previously the preserve of specialists. Any such democratisation of knowledge is broadly threatens claims of professionalism based on exclusive expertise (or knowledge asymmetry between professional and client) even if, in practice, the diagnostic power of such technologies is limited to routine problems and may in fact encourage greater demand for expert consultation.

Fourth, in addition to external controls, professionals have become less autonomous (and therefore less distinctive) by virtue of their subjection to managerial controls in both public and private sectors. For example, even in the elite firms of the business professions, partners, that is the owners of the firms in which they work, no longer have permanent tenure, have imported the paraphernalia of performance monitoring and work increasingly long hours at the beck and call of their clients (Brock, Powell and Hinings 1999). Older notions of autonomy at work in the pursuit of a higher calling have become irrelevant to everyday work as professionals are caught up in satisfying client needs.

Fifth, as the ecology of work changes new occupations emerge to challenge professions’ jurisdictions. These occupations are rarely organised on formal credentials, deriving power from the market or the state. Examples are to be found in the proliferation of occupations in the areas of risk and regulation. They can exploit the availability of new (and sometimes unorthodox) forms of knowledge to create niches that progressively chip away at the domains of professionals’ work, for instance, in areas of complementary medicine, social welfare, academia, law and psychology.

The research challenge is to come to terms with the broader themes that I have outlined above. For example, research on the extent to which external regulation influences, and is influenced by professions, as they seek to build and sustain jurisdictions is largely lacking but clearly important.

Research is needed on how globalisation creates interconnections and tensions between professions and how these are negotiated. Work on the rhetoric and strategies that occupations use to pursue professionalisation is prompted by some of the trends I mentioned: in knowledge intensive environments one might predict all would-be professions lay stress on technical expertise but is this sufficient? Or, is there value in (re-)emphasising ethical standards in the context of suspicion among many publics of professionals’ motives?

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Barley, S. and G. Kunda (2006) 'Contracting: A New Form of Professional Practice'. Academy of Management Perspectives, 20 (1):45-66.

Brock, D. M., Powell, M. J. and Hinings, C. R. (eds) (1999) Restructuring the Professional Organization: Accounting, Health Care and Law. London: Routledge.

McKenna, C. (2005) The World’s Newest Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.