Thursday, June 21, 2012

A Theory of Professions

Here I attempt to lay out a Theory of Professions that can be used to guide and inform practitioners, Professional Bodies, Regulators, Governments and the general Public.

The original contribution here is an attempt to layout a framework to categorise Professions by their Duty to Others and suggest that these duties apply at multiple levels: Practitioners, Organisations, Whole Profession.

Describing Professions in this way makes discourse easier and more focussed, allows reasonable expectations to be set and may inform Policy makers and Regulators when judging if Professions or their parts are succeeding or failing.
I've phrased for a time my rubric of Professional Practice as a rhetorical question:
When it is ever acceptable for a Professional to repeat, or allow, a Known Fault, Failure or Error? [A: Never]
[Non-rehtorically: Professionals never repeat, or allow, Known Faults, Failures or Errors.]

Which implies a meta-level, the "Profession" and leaves untouched the issue of "Professional Behaviour".

Elsewhere, I've written the Raison d'ĂȘtre of Professional Associations or Bodies is:
To collect, preserve and disseminate Professional Learnings of Successes, Failures, Discovery and Invention.
Barry Boehm neatly summaries the importance of the Historical Perspective as:
Santayana's half-truth: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

Don’t remember failures?
  • Likely to repeat them
Don’t remember successes?
  • Not likely to repeat them
The critical insight here is that there are two sides to improvement:
  • What not to do,
  • What to do.
So my rubric must be extended to include something like "and practice What Works (ie. proven)".

Professional Bodies and Associations have many roles that are inherently in conflict and cannot be conflated:
  • Representing employee practitioners, the equivalent of Trade Unions,
  • Representing the interests of (independent) sole practitioners and small businesses
  • Representing the Medium and Large Businesses, either of practitioners, service providers or vendors: Industry representation.
  • Catering for teachers/trainers and Academics and Researchers.
  • Advocating the interests of practitioners and the Profession to Industry Bodies, Governments and other Agencies and Bodies
  • Disseminating Knowledge and Practices.
  • Monitoring, Collecting and Reporting data on Quality, Safety and Client/Public Outcome.
  • Investigating and reporting on 'Incidents and Accidents'.
  • Compliance and Enforcement of Regulations, including Licensing, Testing and Registration.
Many theories of Professions start with:
  • A Body of Knowledge,
  • Barriers to Entry, and
  • means of Discipline, including barring.
Then go on to struggle with Ethics and "Professional Conduct". As stated above, I'm going to defer that discussion.

Professions must be able to distinguish themselves from one another: they make a claim on Fields of Practice and Intellectual endeavour. Saying "this is what we do, and no others".

Which says:

  • Professions need standard or common nomenclature to describes roles, tasks, positions and more.
  • Professions need to enumerate sub-specialities and allow for their growth, change and absorption.
  • Multiple Professions will have overlap in areas.
  • Professions will interface in their practice with certain other Professions. It is likely that new specialisations or Professions will stem from these uncertain areas and 'ownership' will commonly be disputed.
  • Professions as a construct of Human Knowledge and Practice are fluid and subject to change, even across cultures and countries.
In any Field of Practice, there will be multiple levels of Practice and Responsibility. Using Engineering as an example:
  • Engineers: know all Theory in Depth and ultimately responsible for the Design, Safety and Quality.
  • Technicians: know Theory, but to a lesser Depth, responsible for Execution and Operation. Similar to Para-legals or paramedics.
  • Tradesmen: Know a set of regulations and rules. Responsible for compliance with them and Designs.
  • Semi-skilled Trade Assistants and Labourers: Practical skills in assisting Tradesmen and Technicians. Responsible for completing assigned tasks to required Quality/Safety levels.
  • Unskilled labourers: The lowest skill set and knowledge. Responsible for competently and diligently caring out assignments under supervision.
There will be multiple Professions and Professional Bodies within every Field of Practice addressing these skill, knowledge and responsibility levels.

How these Professions and Bodies interact with one another is critical to Public Safety and Quality of Service Delivery.

I posit three categories of "Duty to Others" for Professions:
  • Fiduciary Duty or Trust to all Clients. Highest level of responsibility, care and autonomy.
  • "Fair Go".  Reasonable Care and Concern for Public and Client Safety and Outcomes.
  • "Caveat Emptor". Customers are considered "fair game" by practitioners and who need to take deliberate protective or defensive measures. Very low levels of trust and often borderline legal behaviours are common.
For the top two categories, independent and distinct duties apply at three levels:
  • Individual Practitioner
  • Organisation or Institution
  • Whole Profession.
more to follow.

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