Trying to understand professionalism

Dennis Hayes, Professor in the School of Education has organised a conference entitled Understanding Professionalism at the University of Derby next week. I???m giving a paper about the role of the careers professional in the light of the development of Web 2.0.

I thought I???d throw up a few ideas here to get my brain going and then start putting my PowerPoint together. As ever I???m hoping to crowd source a few ideas, so pitch in if you feel moved to do so.

I???ve always been rather suspicious of the idea of professions. George Bernard Shaw???s quote about profession???s being a conspiracy against the laity strikes me as extremely apt. This may be because I speak as someone who isn???t a professional. I???m not qualified (in the sense of having a formal qualification) to do almost anything that I do. I???ve also moved about a fair bit meaning that I don???t really belong to any professional club or community of practice other than a very loose and decentralised one that I see as essentially ???those of my mates who I can come up with some reason to work with from time to time???. Most tellingly I don???t really have a professional identity. I can talk like a teacher, a researcher, a learning technologist, a careers worker or a number of other professions, but in my heart of hearts I???m overcoming impostor syndrome on all of them.

My concerns about professionalisation therefore are deeply suspect. I suppose I worry that if everything gets professionalised there won???t be a place for someone like me. It also reflects my sense that all of the most interesting stuff lies somewhere between worlds. The green economist Victor Anderson notes that “the world is not really separated into subject areas in the same way that university buildings and departments are. There really is no such thing as an economic system separate from a social system or a culture or an ecological system. The more realistic a study of something is, the more interdisciplinary it necessarily has to be.” I always thought that this was a killer quote and I think it applies as much to professional activity as it does to academic thought. The solutions to personal and social problems aren???t very likely to come from one professional, but rather in the connections between many.

Of course the fact that professionals don???t have all the answers is not a critique of professionalism as such. It is an argument for professionals to collaborate certainly, I???d also argue that it is an argument for hybrid-professionals, but the idea that you have a group of people who are trained and qualified to do something and in contact with one another about the doing of it is not necessarily a problem. As long as these professionals can be flexible, open-minded and outward looking the process of becoming and maintaining a professionalism can be a valuable one.

However there is difference between saying that a professional is someone who is likely to be good at something and saying that a professional is the only person who can be good at something. I guess it is here that some of my thinking about the role of careers professionals and web 2.0 starts to kick in. The web opens up access to a wide range of information sources and learning opportunities about career (and of course everything else). However relatively few of them are professional in the sense that would be understood by the ICG.

Careers professionals have got to find a place within the web 2.0 world. However, before they do that they???ve got to answer the question ???what is it about careers advice that requires a professional???? In the context of your career there are clearly a lot of people who can and do help you. A careers professional is one, but friends, family, HR people, managers, teachers, recruitment consultants and the bloke down the pub are all likely to have an opinion, some advice and in many cases some useful resources for you. A careers professional offers some kind of composite of all the things that you can get elsewhere along with (generally) a bit of a broader, more impartial, more knowledgeable perspective. However there are also likely to be questions and answers where a professional will give you a worse answer than one of the other groups that I???ve mentioned.

Careers professionals have techniques that will help you to ask the right questions and find the right answers but they can???t claim to own the field of learning about a career. Nor can they pretend that the advice and learning gathered from other sources is necessarily or even usually worse. It may be that for you, at that moment, that bloke down the pub said, did or showed you the thing that unlocked some quandary for you. The internet doesn???t fundamentally change this, but it does increase the number of people that you can draw in information, advice and learning from. It also gives you easier access to people who traditionally the careers professional would mediate for you e.g. employers.

So what is left for the careers professional? My feeling is that the role of the careers pr
ofessional moves from being an expert to a facilitator; from being a instrumentalist to being a conductor. Careers professionals can???t claim access to special information about the labour market (that is all freely available for those that know where to look) and they can???t claim to be the only brokers between individuals and their careers. There are lots of other ways to increase your self-knowledge or to explore you options. Careers advice and guidance remains a powerful way to do this but it can???t claim this as a USP.

I think that careers professionals need to view their role as the creation of opportunities for learning and moments of clarity. These opportunities might come as part of a guidance interview, but they might also come through directing someone to a website, hooking them up with a mentor, providing consultancy for their teachers or encouraging them to take up a work placement or job. This approach focuses on the outcome and bolts together bits and pieces from your professional toolkit with other stuff to achieve the outcome. If the profession can be this inventive and flexible it will have a huge role to play whatever changes technology, policy and society have to throw at it.



  1. If we’re all going to have portfolio careers, doesn’t that undermine the concept of "professionalism" as you’ve outlined it here?

  2. @ajcann I don’t actually believe that we are all going to have portfolio careers. My sense is that most people are likely to spend most of their lives working for a series of single employers. I think that portfolio careers are appealing, but without some kind of structural change to things like pensions as well as a major change to management and working cultures I don’t think that it is likely to become the dominant form of employment. However, even if it does I think that the idea of professionalism can endure alongside it. The process of qualifying and joining a club of some kind can retain even if you only practice on Mondays and Thursdays just as if you practice every day of the week.

  3. It depends what we mean by portfolio. I was thinking about serial monogamy. Complete the sequence: Researcher, HE teacher, …

  4. I???m glad Dennis Hayes fired-up this discussion. I think it???s overdue. It seems to me that most of what we say about professionalism is about how to secure our claims to professional status. And is that, now, all we need to say about it?In today???s world claims to exclusive professional authority do not go down at all well. Bankers, doctors, lawyers, and politicos are finding that out. And we can???t assume that teachers and advisers are exempt from scrutiny. In an un-deferential world students, customers, patients, clients, and constituents are no longer a pushover for claims of ???I???m an expert, and I???m here to help you???. it???s not that professionalism is bad. GB Shaw overdid it – professionals are no more self-seeking than anybody else. At the heart of professionalism is a belief in the value of independently-held expertise. It is meant to enable us to rise above manipulation by unfair, ill-informed and partisan interests. And to maintain that kind of independence we need to set useful standards, honour effective training, protect well-founded expertise, and establish genuine credibility. But, however well we do that, I doubt that it is – any longer – good enough. I think I???m agreeing with you, Tristram, that we need to push the boundaries of our professionalism. I???d like to see some concrete consequences. How about these – just for starters? In any foreseeable economic and social conditions we need to… … be more independent of policy-driven recruitment-and-selection interests;… show more curiosity, not just about how what we do works, but why – sometimes – it doesn???t;… develop wider range of ways of working with both trained expertise and informal experience;… establish multi-lateral working partnerships – engaging stakeholders in locally-based, voluntary and social-enterprise outfits.This is no-less professional. But is it an emerging professionalism?Bill

  5. Would it be helpful to attempt to unpack the idea of professionalism?There are a number of distinct concepts here:Professionalism as a ‘closed shop’.In any mature career field there is a tendency to restrict access by demanding certain qualifications and experience (see Inkson’s Type 3 careers – Professionalism as accumulated expertise.What distinguishes career ‘professionals’ from your mate in the pub is that we do this every day, so we accumulate and hone certain knowledge, skills and awareness that the occasionalist does not. This has to be linked with…Professionalism as a commitment to quality, learning and development.Professions often have some element of CPD as a requirement, they may also include a requirement for regular peer review or assessment to assure good practice.Professionalism as a set of behaviours and attitudes.The original derivation of professional (same as professor) is someone who makes a commitment or takes an oath. Being a professional means abiding by a set of rules or standards of behaviour.Whilst I am also uncomfortable with the first type of professionalism, I would be reluctant to give up on the other three. In the end, I subscribe to the belief that people should know I’m a professional from the quality of what I produce rather than a particular certificate I possess. However, some people like to see the certificate before they will listen to the output.

  6. Interesting to see the some of the same challenges to the notion of professionalism being examined. There’s been an awful lot talked about in the library world about the impact of online sources and the perceived need for information professionals – whether we blow our own trumpets enough about the value we can bring to a situation, and how we demonstrate the return on investment in us and resources.I’d link to the results of the Special Library Association’s alignment project but it looks like their website’s having a 4 July day off at

  7. For me professionalism rests on competency to deliver a given task or role. It must also take in the ability to adapt to changing needs by adapting practice as new ideas and collaborations come through. If this doesn???t happen then claims on ???the profession??? become very weak. As a new media producer I know that developers really struggle to keep up with what???s going on around them yet need to demonstrate competency to clients at all times. To mitigate the good ones invite their clients to explore with them, working iteratively, seeing what works and why as they go, sharing the learning with all, and sometimes in a very professional manner to-boot. Perhaps in this brave (and economically quite scary) new Web 2.0 world, all involved in careers work should, as Tristram says, make facilitation a core feature of their work becoming co-explorers with clients and young people, testing the water and discussing findings with clients as they go. In parallel this should take in looking for collaborations from other environments and borrowing the best bits while having the confidence to dump what doesn???t work. This feels like professionally responsible behaviour to me…

  8. This comment is partly an elaboration on my earlier comment and partly a reply to Gillian P’s comments on her blog about this subject ( earlier comments were an attempt to explore the general concept of professionalism. It might be helpful for me to expand on them with particular reference to my views on being a ‘professional’ careers coach/adviser.I don’t practise a closed-shop when it comes to careers advice. In fact, I tend to encourage my clients to seek careers help from as many other people as they can. After all, there’s no way I can keep up to date with and keep in my head all the labour market information that my diverse clients might need, let alone confidently predict what will be needed in ten years’ time – I don’t possess a crystal ball. I see it as part of my ‘professionalism’ (4th definition) to be open about that limitation with my clients. My accumulated expertise is only marginally to do with labour market information – and all I really know about that is that it is unpredictable and chaotic. What I have gained from daily exposure to people who are dealing with career issues is an in-depth understanding of the common ways of thinking and behaving that can cause people to get stuck. So, in this way, I am a facilitator (in its literal meaning). I try to make it easier for my clients to navigate their way through the thinking they have to do and the actions they have to take in order to increase their chances of having the sort of career they want. (In terms of my own personal model of guidance, I spend a lot of time in the HOW zone rather than the WHAT zone, and occasionally I’ll make forays into the WHY and WHO zones if it seems necessary – many cases, it’s not about making ‘five-year plans’; it’s about giving people skills that will, hopefully, last them a lifetime. I agree with Gillian’s comments (see her blog) that careers advice shouldn’t stop at the application form. After all, research has shown that career success isn’t just about having a good start; it’s about having the skills to deal with the social and political complexities of the working environment. I still don’t think we prepare students enough for this. As Bill might say, ‘more work needed’.I hope that this is what makes me different from the mate in the pub. It is certainly what determines my priorities for my own learning and development. I need to make sure that I have a good understanding of HOW people think and make decisions. I also need to have an understanding of HOW people have successful and satisfying careers. That’s why I’m so into theory and research (besides the fact that I’m a bit of a geek). In this way I feel that I am an ‘expert’ as well as a ‘facilitator’ and intend to remain so.I hope that the above partly explains why I both agree and disagree with Tristram’s thesis. I really like the description of my role as ‘the creation of opportunities for learning and moments of clarity’. I agree that inter-disciplinary thinking is the best way of dealing with a complex world. However, I do think that 16 years of experience working with thousands of clients and my dedication to learning and reflective practice mean that I can give some things that a non-professional would find it much harder to give,

  9. Couple of quick points in an interesting discussion. Firstly there appears to be little consideration of ethics (aside David’s listing of Inskon’s metaphors), which is a fairly reliable marker of groups with claims to professionalism. Having an established set of boundaries relating to knowledge, practice, general conduct, accuracy and information provision is an important element in professionalism. Secondly I am concerned about Tristram’s support for the fashionable facilitator idea. For a start, the only conductors to stand in front of an orchestra and wave their arms about in the absence of any deep musical knowledge and expertise are likely to be better on employed "On the Buses" or they are Eric Morecombe. This is the worry about the facilitator notion – it emphasises the acquisition and execution of a few techniques in the absence of a sound underlying knowledge of theory and the literature in the field. Indeed it can become a wonderful cloak for for all kinds of charlatans. Next I think we have to be careful that we do not overly privilege the information provision aspect of career counselling, or that we construe web 2.0 as primarily an information provider. For instance just saw a superb use of Youtube videos to extract client narratives using Savickas’ career construction presented by Kevin Glavin and Pia Smal from NOVA University at the NCDA conference. Here we see web 2.0 apps being used by skilled counsellors within a coherent theoretical framework to assist the client with a powerful sense-making exercise.However, there is a more general issue about how we define our field. What is the focus of our enquiry? Recent definitions are so inclusive and broad that they are synonymous with "life" (e.g. "the the paid and unpaid roles we assume throughout life" – can’t think of any part of life that falls beyond the scope of that). There are ethical and training implications that follow from adopting such definitions too closely (though I appreciate the positive intent of such inclusive attempts).I like the problem-based approach to inquiry which echoes Tristram’s concern about discipline based approaches. This permits a range of different perspectives and skills to be included in our approach, and different types of inquiry and evidence to be used. (I for instance have used a lot of ideas from maths, physics and biology in developing the Chaos Theory of Careers).That said, it is not a free for all, and I think we need to have a sense of core and peripheral business, otherwise notions of training and ethics, and public/client expectations are severely tested. Of course what is core and peripheral will be subject to continual and sometimes non linear change (c.f. Chaos Theory of Careers). It would be good for us to decide these matters, to say to the world that we have identified a problem, and have some useful solutions and processes. So one step towards a clearer identity would be a sense of emancipation from various Government agendas.Finally, Tristram, you might like to check out the Factory podcast (my blog at and listen to John Krumboltz and myself saying we are all imposters. It is when you believe you are not that you are getting complacently close to becoming one!!

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