The Cassandra Complex by Mark O’Neill ( @marxculture ) connected with a few memories buried in my mind. In it, he raised questions about what professions and professionalism are these days. Thinking about these issues, they are closely related to current debate about the use of social web tools by governement people, Big Society, and the impending plans to cut public spending.
Suitable attire – one definition of ‘professional’
One of my American friends who works in the UK says that our professional standards are not as high as American ones because… Well, it’s a long argument, but some key points of American professional standards apparently include:
1) one should dress smartly (and, for women especially, as un-sexily as possible) in black, charcoal grey or very dark navy;
2) work all the hours of the day and night apart from 7 hours for sleeping, eating and washing;
3) never tell anyone anything about your life outside work;
4) have a serious expression upon one’s face and do not smile too much.
It sounds rather too corporate and joyless an approach to professionalism to me.
For several years, I was vaguely amused daily when walking past a School of Business at the sight of university students and staff in dark suits. One MBA student told me that they were not allowed to attend unless they were wearing a traditional suit. So, professionalism for them is impossible without a uniform. It seemed strange that there should be such rigid thinking about suitable attire. I had imagined that business studies encouraged flexible and agile thinking to cope with the vagaries of commerce. I could write a whole thesis on professional attire, and what people expect it to be.
‘Professional’ equals bigger, higher, longer, better
The distinction between professional and non-professional jobs seemed to be woven into the fabric of the first public organisation in which I was first employed full-time. The grades and pay were based on categorising jobs as professional, technical, administrative and manual. The higher levels of pay and benefits went to the professional and technical staff (and, incidentally, almost all were men, of course). Their trade union was also the strongest, protecting their benefits when cuts were made.
Roles that were classed as professional included:
architects and landscape architects
civil & mechanical engineers (but only the chartered ones)
estates surveyors (chartered)
lawyer (there was only one)
Most “professionals” were chartered or had a doctorate level degree in a relevant subject, together with work experience.
The benefits of being categorised as a professional were:
- much longer pay-band ladders;
- larger amount of floor space in the office;
- bigger desks;
- better quality chairs;
- higher rates of travel and subsistence;
- rarely being questioned about how little time one spent in the office;
- manager rarely questioning what one was doing when not in the office (only one person in the organisation had a mobile phone in 1988);
- being given priority by the reprographics staff when requiring photocopies;
- being able to get some junior member of staff to minute meetings.
A quick dash from now to medieval to modern
Dictionaries provide three definitions for the noun “professional’ in three ways:
- A person qualified in a profession [unhelpful]
- A person who does a specific activity as his or her main paid work
- A person who is competent or skilled in a specific activity.
The definition of ‘profession’ is more helpful. It is an activity or occupation that someone is skilled or competent to do and for which they get paid; and for which the person had to train for a long time and obtain a qualification before they could do it.
‘Profession’ apparently first appears in Middle English, that is, between the early 1100s and late 1400s (approximately), and was related to entering monastic orders.
Many of the occupations that are now recognised as professions emerged slowly during the 18th and 19th centuries. Standardising training and technical developments helped them to evolve.
A specific example
When Henry Tate (1819 – 1899) commissioned Luke Fildes (1843 – 1927) to paint something for his collection of modern art, the artist decided to portray a doctor.
Although the practices of the barbers had been separated from those of surgeons in 1745, the modern medical doctors were then only just establishing themselves as respectable professionals and shaking off the image of quacks and barber-surgeons, and the early 19th century associations with body-snatchers. Doctors had only just begun to understand the underlying causes of contagious diseases in the late 19th century. Sterilisation of surgical equipment did not happen before the mid-1870s because the need for it was not understood.
Doctors vied with each other to sit for Fildes, each wanting to be the face of his profession. Fildes mostly used a professional model to sit for the figure and the face is deliberately not a portrait of one individual. His painting possibly influenced to some extent the view that doctors had of their professional selves. He entitled the painting The Doctor, and exhibited it for the first time at the Royal Academy in 1891. His composition put the doctor in the centre. Fildes portrayed the doctor as more than a man with medical knowledge. He showed a kindly, selfless, dedicated, compassionate man, prepared to spend a whole night looking after a sick child whose parents, a labourer and his wife, were likely to be too poor to pay for even half an hour of his time.
Some of you might refer to it as ‘brand-building.’ Luke Fildes’s vision of a modern, professional doctor became the icon for decades, held up as a good example to medical students. It was endlessly referenced, copied and purloined by doctors and pharmacists all over the world.
I expect more than technical excellence and specialist knowledge from professionals. Maybe because I grew up with a copy of Luke Fildes’s Doctor on the wall, I also expect professionals to think about and abide by ethical standards. I expect them to:
- behave with courtesy;
- act with decorum;
- be honest people whom one can trust;
- aim to be unprejudiced;
- be able to put aside personal feelings.
Sometimes, a professional does not act with the professionalism I expect. Threatening, shouting and swearing at a colleague does not seem professional behaviour, unless one is role-playing during a training session on how to deal with difficult clients.
Maybe I expect too much?
There is also something else that I have been trying to add into the recipe for professional behaviour since I first started work: being human as well as professional. It is a delicate balance, and I am not at all sure that I get it right.
For most, it would be inappropriate to waft a bleeding heart around or smother clients with bear hugs. It is about risking being an individual human being sufficiently to connect with others, but still maintaining enough distance for the relationship with others to be a professional one.
When I first started work, there were people who still expected to be addressed formally. There are still occasions or individuals for whom that level of formality seems more appropriate. These days, I would consider a chief executive of a public organisation to be unduly stuffy if he or she expected me to address them formally.
I have had many discussions with people over the use of social web tools and professional standards over recent years. People do confuse the medium with professional standards at times. Maybe the social web is making the misfit between the expectations of professional standards by some against others’ more visible? There always have been control freaks and bullies who thought that any form of dialogue in whatever medium had the potential to be dangerously subversive. Before Facebook, people simply got up to embarrassing things in real life, and gossip spread with word pictures.
I was interested and amused when Dominic Campbell said something on Twitter that seemed to indicate that he expects government blogs to be ‘professional’ by having comprehensive links rather than just a few. I wonder whether it is time for government to admit that public services are not carved in granite, are not definitive, but are entities in states of constant beta. Today’s professionalism should be able to admit to constant evolution rather than hiding behind a facade of unchanging traditions. Professional civil servants, for example, have an image of stuffy rigidity. Many whom I have met are positively feline in their flexibility and agility.
Shooting down professionalism?
Tom Stoneham made me think about another way in which professionalism can be viewed (and abused, maybe) through his post for Saturday 18th September 2010:
“gratuitous ‘professionalization’ of ordinary activities is a waste of time and money.”
I am intrigued at what he considers to be “gratuitous ‘professionalization’” (and look forward to finding out at some point). It is obvious enough with the specific example he provides in that post: a simply-made sign with an apparently clear meaning.
I did wonder what might happen if someone unable to read English saw that same sign. Would they even understand that a red sign denotes a warning usually in our culture? Colours can mean opposite things in different cultures. Maybe an image of a skull with an arrow in its eye is required as well?
What I think that he might mean is the kind of slick corporate branding that seems to be considered essential for everything, including snake oil salesmen and social media gurus. I certainly feel that I have wasted time in recent years trying to comply exactly with the corporate image rules for universities and funding bodies (try fitting all the logos and accompanying text they require on to a web page, and still leave room for the prime content!).
There can be benefits in conveying information effectively and efficiently, and the rough and ready method is not best for all situations. I might feel nostalgic about the golden age of academic idealism when quality of teaching and research were the most important things. In fact, it probably never was like that. Today, universities are brands that trade in an international market, and have to make an impression on business people as well as potential students and their funders.
I have had to consider warnings to prevent people seriously injuring or killing themselves, in the distant past. It was part of everyday work, as was dealing with the consequences if someone did get injured or die on or falling from one of the sites we managed. Ancient monuments can be inherently dangerous, but making them totally safe would result in wrecking their visual appeal and historical integrity. Getting the balance wrong can mean someone dies as a result. Consistency in visual clues to danger can help to prevent accidents.
So, taking responsibility is another factor in a professional approach. Taking responsibility, needing to consider the potential risks of decisions (or lack of decisions), should be part of the ethical equipment of a professional.
Why does any of this matter?
Maybe because we know that our corner of our world needs to change in a fundamental way. The Government introduced the phrase “Big Society” on 18th May 2010. It also has stated the intention to make major cuts to public budgets. People are talking about volunteers replacing professionals, or how the ‘Big Society’ is not about that at all. It has prompted us to think more deeply about what professionals are in our society today; to compare and, where necessary, to contrast with the amateurs.
The professional’s general image has been eroded by scandals in the ‘Red Tops,’ and confused with a concept of specious arguments about the pay of a few at the top, and with class privilege. The begrudging politics of envy, the unpleasant British habit of thinking “if I don’t have that, nobody else should” (someone I know would call it “chippy”).
The cuts threatening public services are making us think about the difference between public servants and volunteers. It is especially important that we are clear on why we need professionals in public culture since many people see work within that sector as “nice.”
People sometimes tell me that they see heritage management as being a wonderfully pleasant, relaxing and civilised occupation. Plenty of people are engaged in cultural activities in their spare time. I can see why they should think that most of the work could be done by volunteers. I also know that this view is impractical and wrong, and will argue this at length another time.
Back to the beginning
I started writing this with the idea of categorising bears. I was thinking at the time about the different types of bears in the wild, and the different styles used to depict bears. A bear is still a bear, whether he is Winnie the Pooh, Iorek Byrnison, Paddington or Euston Bear (the latter is a character on Twitter who is the opposite to Paddington).
Bear is also the nickname of Mark O’Neill who wrote the blog post that sparked off my writing this post. I have seen Mark in his professional role once so far, and I found him inspiring in his very 21st century approach: being an intelligent, humorous human rather than a stuffed shirt bureaucrat. I have observed that many people seem to have more respect for that approach to being professional.
Professionals can still be professional when they are not called “Mr” or “Dr” or “Sir.” Whilst T-shirt and jeans may not work as professional garb for all, it is everyday wear for many highly respected people. Professionals can even have a regional accent these days.
Just as there is an essential bear quality to the different types and depictions of bears, there is an essential professionalism. I think that it involves intelligence, training, knowledge, experience, skills, ethics, responsibility, and being human. What do you think?
Mark O’Neill, ‘The Cassandra Complex,’ Lost consCIOusness [http://lostconsciousness.wordpress.com/2010/09/08/the-cassandra-complex/ last accessed 22/09/2010]
Simon Wakeman, ‘Professional institutes, PR and marketing,’ Simon Wakeman public sector communications and marketing [http://www.simonwakeman.com/2010/09/19/professional-institutes-pr-and-marketing/ last accessed 22/09/2010]
Tom Stoneham, [Archery Range. Shooting in progress.] practically satisfactory [http://www.blipfoto.com/view.php?id=733626 last accessed 22/09/2010]
‘Government puts Big Society at heart of public sector reform,’ Cabinet Office [http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/newsroom/news_releases/2010/100518-news-big-society-launch.aspx last accessed 22/09/2010]
Big Society Network [http://www.thebigsociety.co.uk/ last accessed 22/09/2010]
Big Society In The North Forum [http://grou.ps/bigsocietynorth/home last accessed 22/09/2010]
Dave Briggs [http://www.davebriggs.org.uk/ last accessed 22/09/2010]
Public Strategist [http://publicstrategist.com/ last accessed 22/09/2010]