Computing Applications Technology strategy and management

The Business of Professionals

Expertise and service ethics are just two of the many components comprising a modern professional.
  1. Introduction
  2. Where Did Professions Come From?
  3. A Variety of Professional Types
  4. Traditional Preoccupations of Professionals
  5. 21st-Century Challenges for Professionals
  6. References
  7. Author
  8. Tables
The Business of Professionals, illustration

Computing professionals benefit from examining other professions with longer histories that arose from demands for new expertise. It requires more than technical excellence to translate demand into successful professional control over expertise. Professionalism is more than the promotion and certification of competence. But what is it? What are the strategies professionals have used to achieve high social respect and remuneration? What strategies should they be pursuing in the 21st century?

As a starting point, professionalism embodies expertise, a body of knowledge, and a service ethic. Fiduciary obligations of professionals extend beyond pursuit of self-interest, and involve advancing the common good through a code of ethics.

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Where Did Professions Come From?

Most English accounts of professions start with lawyers and doctors, followed by a long list of others, including dentists, nurses, engineers, chemists, physicists, architects, and accountants.2 Belonging to a profession implied a calling for talented amateurs and gentlemen seeking to employ their expertise to improve their station in society. Later, orderly careers grounded in higher education became the norm in 19th-century Victorian England. Professional associations, such as the Law Society and the Royal College of Physicians, began to require training and examinations as prerequisites before granting licenses to practice. Thus, self-regulation in matters of standards and discipline has been central to the Anglo-Saxon tradition of professions.

Continental Europe showed a different pattern, with the state playing a more prominent role.1 The rise of the nation-state in the 16th century led to the creation of the military and civil servants in state bureaucracies. Engineering professions took off in the late 19th century in response to the needs of private enterprise in the industrial revolution and the state for public services such as railroads, gas and electricity, and telegraph and telephone. The rise of the welfare state since 1945 has given rise to professionals such as healthcare and social workers.

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A Variety of Professional Types

Professions have evolved over the centuries and across geographies, factored on three dimensions: mode of training, required qualification, and standards enforcement.6 First, some professions require practical training, as in residency for medical doctors where supervised practice is needed before they are deemed fully qualified. In such cases professional knowledge is a combination of theoretical and practical knowing, which is often difficult to codify fully. Second, some professions require a license that makes it illegal to practice without, while others merely require a certificate, which is a formal recognition of the level of competence achieved.3 Third, ethical and performance standards are enforced in different ways. Self-regulated professionals believe that only members of their profession have the competence and appropriate ethics to enforce these standards, insisting that outsiders—lay members—cannot properly supervise their activities.

The three dimensions can be used to describe professional types (see the accompanying table). Classical professions such as physician and lawyer have all three characteristics: practical training, license to practice, and within-profession enforcement of standards. Nevertheless, they can be factored into independent professionals who have self-regulated associations to license and enforce standards, or state-sponsored professionals who are beholden to state agencies to grant licenses and enforce standards. Organizational professionals such as engineers and specialists in finance, marketing, or human resources, do not require practical training, do not require a license to practice, and have standards enforced by employers and clients. Knowledge professionals such as research scientists do not have formalized practical training, use certification rather than licensing, and exercise collegial enforcement of standards. These are ideal types; real professions often combine more than one type. Computing has characteristics of knowledge professionals and organizational professionals.

Professionalism is more than the promotion and certification of competence.

Professionalism is a matter of degree rather than a sharp distinction. What distinguishes between a proper profession, a quasi-profession, or an occupation? The lines can be drawn in multiple ways, and professionals who focus on traditional factors such as practical training, licensing, and self-regulation might not fare as well in the face of 21st-century challenges (as I will discuss later in this column).

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Traditional Preoccupations of Professionals

Two long-standing preoccupations relevant for today’s professionals are exclusive jurisdiction and professional autonomy.8 A successful profession holds exclusive claim to a particular area of competence that goes well beyond maintenance of specific technical standards. Such exclusivity is enforced by licensing and gives professionals monopoly power that yields pay premiums.3 Only licensed doctors can practice medicine, and only licensed lawyers are authorized to practice law. Licensing retains exclusive jurisdiction. As many as 1,100 occupations—hairdressers, florists, private detectives, and others—require license in at least one state in the U.S.

Exclusive jurisdiction rests on a claim to distinctiveness in the knowledge base. For distinctiveness, the theoretical and practical components of professional knowledge must be packaged so the knowledge is neither too narrow nor too broad. The drive toward differentiation of expertise in many professions is seen in the 25 board-certified specialties (encompassing over 125 sub-specialties) for U.S. physicians,7 and 54 specialties for lawyers in England and Wales. At the same time, many organizational professionals, including IT professionals, are broadening their knowledge base by incorporating elements of business management. Ironically, this latter mode of pursuing distinctiveness can result in overlapping knowledge bases with other professions, so this can be self-defeating.

Some professionals have been preoccupied with defense of professional autonomy, through discretion at work and maintenance of collegiate control over performance and ethical standards. Solo practitioners, characterized by C. Wright Mills as “free professionals” amongst the old middle class, have such autonomy, but they are increasingly rare.4 On the other hand, “salaried professionals” now constitute approximately one-fifth of the total labor force in many developed economies. Some of them work in professional service firms such as law firms and architectural design houses owned and managed by professionals. Many others work in complex organizations that threaten professional autonomy. Doctors in hospitals, teachers in schools, and engineers and scientists in commercial R&D labs are salaried professionals with neither exclusive nor final responsibility for their work. They accept the authority of non-professional managers, and can be overruled by managers. A particularly controversial example is medical professionals who feel patient interests are subordinated to the commercial objectives of private hospitals.

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21st-Century Challenges for Professionals

The last century has seen the growth of a specific model for legitimizing professional power and status, based on an ordered career grounded in higher education. In promoting standards, professionals have had a tacit agreement with the state that amounts to a public trusteeship model. Professionals deliver expertise, a service ethic, and public protection in return for high status, reasonable compensation, and limited competition. The future will be different, for three reasons.

Consumerism Undermines the Public Trusteeship Model. Societal norms for service are changing from public trusteeship to a narrower model of service based on expertise. For example, British deregulation of legal services embodies a logic of consumer protection and market-based tests in which professionals provide clients what they want, rather than act as custodians of clients’ interest. Consumerism is also evident in the public sector, where demands for greater transparency and accountability lead to more auditing and inspection of professional work in healthcare, schools, and universities.

Professional Services become Corporatized. Professional autonomy has been threatened by commercial organizations as more doctors become employees of large hospitals or healthcare systems, and many specialists, including IT professionals, have acquired the competences to be part of board-level decision-making in corporations. Some professionals have preserved autonomy and collegial control by forming limited liability partnerships, but growth in size and geographic coverage of professional service firms have pushed collegial control to its limit. In response, some firms have abandoned the partnership model, or introduced a managerial hierarchy that threatens the autonomy of professional work. Thus, threats to the autonomy of professional work used to come from commercial enterprises, but are coming increasingly from within professional service firms.

In promoting standards, professionals have had a tacit agreement with the state that amounts to a public trusteeship model.

Professional Service Markets Globalize through Trade, Investment, and Offshoring. Talented individuals now experience greater cross-border mobility, but international mobility for professionals is hampered by qualification and license rules of national governments and state-level authorities.5 Supra-national efforts at harmonization and mutual recognition of national qualifications are under way, but are slow to bear fruit.

These forces affect professionals. The state has become less willing to grant professional privileges and is keener to introduce market principles to improve the quality of professional services. Professionals must renegotiate the public trusteeship model, and are at risk of losing self-regulation. State-sponsored professionals can suffer in a globalizing world unless they can shift their locus of negotiation to supra-national levels. In contrast, organizational and knowledge professionals can do well by adjusting their expertise and their service ethics.

Implications for “Computing as a Profession.” Professional prosperity should resonate with computing professionals. The aim of ACM is to advance “computing as a science and a profession.” This requires a complex set of considerations. The main audience for the scientist is fellow scientists who are in a position to judge competence. In contrast, the main audience for the professional is clients or employer-clients who usually cannot judge competence. Yet consumerism implies that clients will demand greater transparency and accountability in their attempt to judge competence.

As organizational professionals, computing specialists face the challenge of incorporating business competences to enhance their reputation for managing the delivery of services. As knowledge professionals, computing specialists can be ahead of the game compared to other professions by having internationally recognized certifications. Some of the considerations for “computing as a profession” for the 21st century go beyond the educational mission of ACM to advance “the art, science, engineering, and application of information technology.”

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UT1 Table. Professional types.

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    1. Brante, T. State formations and the historical take-off of continental professional types: The case of Sweden. Sociology of Professions: Continental and Anglo-Saxon Traditions, L.G. Svensson and J. Evetts, Eds. Gotenberg, Daidalos, 2010.

    2. Carr-Saunders, A.M. and Wilson, P.A. The Professions. Frank Cass & Co., London, U.K., 1933, 1964.

    3. Kleiner, M.M. Occupational licensing. Journal of Economic Perspectives 14, 4 (2000), 189–202.

    4. Mills, C.W. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. Oxford University Press, New York, 1951, 2002.

    5. Sako, M. Globalization of knowledge-intensive professional services. Commun, ACM 52, 7 (2009), 31–33.

    6. Sako, M. Professionals between market and hierarchy: A comparative political economy perspective. Socio-Economic Review 11 (2013), 1–28.

    7. Scott, W.R. Lords of the dance: Professionals as institutional agents. Organization Studies 29, 2 (2008), 219–238.

    8. Wilensky, H.L. Professionalization of everyone? American Journal of Sociology 70, 2 (1964), 137–158.

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