Management as a profession

Written by Adrian Gaskell - 23 September 2010

The following is a guest article by Stefan Stern, former management writer at the FT and now chief strategist at Edelman, in response to an article by Richard Barker, former MBA Director at Cambridge university’s Judge Business School, published in the Harvard Business Review.

The term “professional” is one of the most abused words in the English language. Confusion surrounds its true meaning. When a footballer makes the decision to bring down an opponent who seems likely to score, the commentators call it a “professional foul”. The murderous gangsters in Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs pride themselves on their “professionalism”.

But by “professional” most of us understand the idea of a relatively highly qualified person earning their keep by doing serious and worthwhile work. A professional has certain standards, codes and disciplines to live and work by. The opposite of a professional is an amateur: someone who likes doing what they are doing, but who remains fundamentally unserious about it. Amateurs do it for fun, professionals do it for a living.

In the wake of corporate crises and scandals at Enron, WorldCom and in certain investment banks, it was perhaps unsurprising that voices would be raised calling for management itself to become formalised as a profession. One way to guard against ethical mishaps, it was argued, was to establish a clearer definition of the role of the manager.

Loudest and most eloquent among these voices were those belonging to Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana of Harvard Business School. In an article in the Harvard Business Review in October 2008, they set out their manifesto which aimed to claim the P word for management.

Management needed to raise its sights and raise its game, they said. “True professions have codes of conduct, and the meaning and consequences of those codes are taught as part of the formal education of their members.” Yet, they wrote, “unlike doctors and lawyers,” managers don’t “adhere to a universal and enforceable code of conduct.”

The implications for business schools were clear. It was time to make the MBA a more meaningful and robust professional qualification. Professor Robin Wensley from Warwick Business School has supported this idea. “Business schools should continue to emphasise the importance of key elements of the professional approach: evidence based knowledge and ethical behaviour being two of them,” he said.

But these ideas are controversial. Richard Barker, a professor at the Judge business school in Cambridge, argued in the FT recently that such jack-of-all-trades – managers – could never be seen as professionals in the way that doctors or lawyers are. (NB Prof Barker is a former accountant.)

Management may not yet be viewed as a profession, but it needs to be. In the UK, 4.6 million individuals already work as managers, and are represented by a professional institute, which is governed by a code of conduct. Good managers are accredited by the Chartered Manager scheme – a qualification which has to be renewed, unlike an MBA – and are guaranteed by professional associations, something that Prof Barker believes defines a professional.

Managers may be jack-of-all-trades, but they should also be the master of one: management itself. The 21st century is no place for the well-meaning amateur manager, the bumbling David Brent figure. Managers should – must – embrace professionalism, if they are to get serious about what they do for a living every day.

Adrian Gaskell

Adrian Gaskell

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