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Defining a true professional

February 4, 2019

An article in a legal journal recently hailed the rise of new specialisms within the legal community, implying that these represented a sign of health for the overall profession. As an example, it cited the emergence of a handful of specialists in the use of e-mojis in contracts or legal judgments. It might equally have pointed to others who are striving to make contracts intelligible through the use of graphics, or perhaps those who push for standards in style. Such individuals are actually at the forefront in trying to address market needs and realities. Although they are often dismissed by their colleagues as odd, quirky, perhaps even viewed as a threat to professional norms, it is these individuals who keep a profession healthy and relevant. They are key to its survival and, arguably, are the ‘true professionals’.

In fields such as medicine or engineering, there is similar churn as new specialisms arise and old methods and beliefs are replaced by fresh knowledge and research findings. It is in fact the mark of a profession that it provides something of unquestionable social value and proves capable of adapting its standards over time to deliver innovation and sustained benefits.

The challenge of ‘professionalism’

The challenge for any profession is that it tends to have a long tail. For every one of its members who is at the forefront of change and innovation, there are typically hundreds who cling to traditional ways and approaches, viewing their professional standing as a mark of personal status and a route to economic gain. It is these individuals, mostly undertaking routine tasks which could be delivered far more efficiently, who try to stand in the way of progress. Sometimes, professional bodies have such power and influence that they resist change successfully for years. 

It is natural for people to welcome a sense of belonging and there is definite merit when specialist work activities become better defined and standardized. For this purpose, formal ‘associations’ of workers who perform similar tasks and have shared goals are of tremendous value. The problem is that these groups tend not to like their jobs or personal specialism to disappear, so the associations (which often represent themselves as professional bodies) become confused in their purpose. They shift from developing and maintaining socially beneficial standards, to resisting change. Some prove extremely effective in impeding progress, especially when they have successfully campaigned for their community to be granted special status and some form of monopoly rights to particular activities. Trade Unions are a classic example of organizations created in a different era to drive important changes, but in most cases evolving over time to create ‘closed shops’ that stood in the way of wealth creation and economic advance.

A need for clarity

As a society, this means we need to be clearer about the role and status of ‘professionals’, distinguishing them from people who are ‘specialists’ and those who are simply ‘workers’. Traditionally, this divide has been defined by the extent to which there is required learning to perform the role. The problem with this is that the speed of change often means that historic learning becomes irrelevant, perhaps even dangerous. That is why some professions mandate continuous update and even periodic re-examination to retain credentials. In the case of ‘specialists’, new technologies or advances in methodology have a habit of making them redundant unless they have this commitment to continuous learning.

So what should we take from this? First, that society should not allow any group to hold a monopoly over particular work activities unless it can demonstrate that its members embrace change and are at the forefront in making their specialism more useful, more efficient and more accessible. Second, for individuals, we should learn to welcome change as an opportunity for personal development and self-worth. Continuous learning and discovery are fundamental to the human mind. Our professions and associations must be a key source of such learning and discovery, as well as satisfying our need for belonging.

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