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Professions And The World Of Contracts

September 14, 2009

At its simplest ‘professionalism’ is just another word for ‘specialism’. Yet over the centuries, certain groups of specialists joined together and became relatively more powerful and in most cases, more wealthy. This was because their particular skills and  knowledge were highly valued. 

Professionalization carries with it a number of characteristics. Some of these remain unchanged, but there are others that alter as a result of shifts in social values and business organization.

Fundamentals of being ‘a profssional’ include the need to be part of a recognised ‘profession’. Lawyers are certainly OK on this basis; those in Procurement have some of the hallmarks; but contract and commercial managers definitely do not. 

To be a ‘profession’, there must be clarity over what it is that people within it do – what sort of output or outcome they are responsible for. Underlying this activity is a well-defined body of knowledge, with a rigorous requirement for individuals to learn and develop mastery. They must demonstrate their competence through some form of test or examination, before they are authorized to operate with professional name and credentials.

These elements became embedded in societies centuries ago and certainly governed the mediaeval craft guilds. More recently, certain professions (typically those of higher value) also developed ethical and moral principles, which obliged their members to operate to certain codes of practice. While these regulated personal behavior, they also promoted the idea that the profession was dedicated to the greater good of society and that individual professionals should act with a strong social conscience.

Leading professions (those that have survived and flourished) also understood the need for continuous improvement. They sought to manage change, but they did not deny its existence. Hence they were commited to research and also required their members to undertake continuous development through on-going training.

Hence professions have offered strengths through their regulation of quality and practice in key areas of social and business activity. They attract candidates and ensure they meet and observe certain standards. But they also have weaknesses. Professions are restrictive and therefore limit the extent of change. True innovation will be challenging to many members of the profession, so they are slow and reluctant to adapt. They can also prevent the admission of ‘outsiders’, who may in fact bring new sources of value, but are perecived as being in some way ‘inferior’ and threaten the dominance (and material wealth) of the existing members.

Today, we see ‘quasi-professions’, such as business graduates from top business schools, demonstrating some of the characteristics of a profession, as they start to sign up to codes of practice.  We also see greater sharing of professional knowledge, as academia promotes more generalist programs and develops ‘executive education’. Networked technologies and the demand for greater speed and efficiency are forcing many professionals to accept the need to empower others – they cannot any longer hoard their knowledge, but must enable good decisions, including an understanding of when a situation truly requires their specialist involvement. Increasingly, they must also step outside their professional ranks and combine their knowledge with that of experts from other groups, to build new processes or capabilities.

So out of all these factors and considerations, every member of the contracts, legal and procurement community has something to consider and learn as we adjust to 21st century business and organizational structures, and the expectations of a more demanding society. But some have more to do and to learn than others.

Those in the contracts / commercial field are truly at the beginning of the journey. There is growing recognition that their competency is needed and the replies to my recent blogs on ‘the role of a contract manager’ show a high degree of consensus on what this should be. Through IACCM, we are making headway on the body of knowledge and a worldwide certification standard. But many practitioners still operate as ‘talented individuals’, rather than contributing to setting standards and defining an entry and career path. For most, there is no clear and universal mission statement or description of social and business benefit. There is no commitment to continuous improvement through embedded research. There is no academic discipline to sustain and to train those of the future. Therefore, right now, there is no profession.

Professions and specialisms are changing in the netwoked world. But it is clear that they will remain important instruments of progress  for society and for individuals. Those who occupy the fields of contracting and commercial management have many of the ingredients for success available to them. It is interesting how hard it can be to persuade them to grasp these opportunities and to take the steps needed to build their own future.

  1. Well said Tim and good food for thought.

  2. Natarajan BALACHANDAR permalink

    Dear Mr.Tim Cummins,
    Your ‘Role of contract Manager’ was well received by senior executives of my company. Our Managing Director tells he stands vindicated of his view to put across the Board of having a separate Contract Management team in our Organisation. Incidentally, I am heading the newly created dept.
    Your revisit is respectfully appreciated.
    N Balachandar

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