Professionalisation here we come?

Yesterday I was at a  event that was trying to set up a new professional institute in the field. What does the attempt tell us? What will it take to succeed?

The Institute of Corporate Responsibility serves nice wine. It is also an attempt to set up a new professional body. The precursor, in their case, is the Corporate Responsibility Group which is “the learning and development network that exists for and is run by corporate responsibility (CR) and sustainability practitioners”.  Now they want to try and go further, take BITC’s CR Competency Framework and turn it into the basis of a professional body.

The obvious question is: why? The hope of the other attendees was that professional status provides credibility and career path. I’m a qualified accountant (and always will be…); that gives me a strong starting point with people that is useful – both for me personally and for what I’m trying to achieve. Also, my existing professional status makes me one step removed from others in the room, most of whom didn’t already have a dusty certificate.

My interest was more in what the attempt tells us. I think it means that the field is maturing, and that some people think it is mature enough to attempt professionalisation. By itself, that attempt is a data point. Whether they succeed will be another.

So far I’ve been careful to avoid saying what field. And this the first conundrum for ICR. They’ve chosen “corporate responsibility” as the best way to express the field. I wonder if that’s a good choice. I asked in the event “what is the label that we will be glad we chose in the years time?”. I suspect CR will seem dated. Even today most new departments have ‘sustainability’ in the name. Obviously I am personally committed to sustainability, and could easily be biased or mistaken.

The next conundrum is about who: the deep CR-only specialists in the specific department or anyone who had to think about CR/sustainability-related issues issues, from CEO through to brand manager and more?

The temptation is the big prize: everyone. Whether you prefer sustainability or CR, you probably think that a business that is taking it seriously embeds across the organisation, which means many people have need at lead a minimum capability, some will need a medium ability and a few will be deep experts.

But. But. But. Instinctively you’d think successful communities come from growing out of a small, dynamic core. I have a memory of Clay Shirky saying that in this podcast, I think.

Surely the short-term game for an emerging organisation is momentum and critical mass, which here means becoming vital to a particular small cohort now in a way that can scale later. Only in the medium-term should you worry about non-specialists.

Then we have the final conundrum: what sort of role can support a professional institute?

Consider accounting. Anyone can try to run the accounts of a business. But the function is seen as vital, and you don’t want to get it wrong. So, there is a clear demand for people who can perform certain tasks – and who can prove so in advance, rather than finding out they are not up to snuff as you go. Only a qualified person can claimed to be a chartered accountant. Within accounting there is auditing – and this is regulated (via the professional body). Only qualified people who keep up their membership of the institutes can perform audits. You can see why there is a professional body and qualification.

Of course, there is a lot of path-dependency in the current set up. I’ve been told by senior folk in the ICAEW that what we think of as ‘accounting’ is partly due to a massive land-grab by the Victorian leaders of the profession. He claimed that’s why US TV shows have more law firms, the US accounting professional didn’t make the same land grab and consequently has a lower prominence.

Now, not all professions have some sort of legal protection as chartered accountant or solicitor. You can talk about the Advertising Profession, though I don’t think of that as having quite the same exam-focussed career path.

But it seems to me that as a minimum you need a set of activities that you can draw an agreed  boundary around, and which a large number of companies know they need. So I see two challenges for ICR (and anyone else trying to set up a professional institute in the field).

1. what are the commonly agreed activities? I suspect that the field is too ambiguous right now. Plus I suspect there will be fragmentation over time – people working on sustainability-related innovation will have a different set of activities from people working on CR-related HR issues.

2. do enough companies know they need these skills? More businesses are trying to get better at CR / sustainability (in some way). But do they know they need the skills? And what chance is there that they will signal a consistent demand to the labour market, when the set of activities is not commonly agreed.

If the ICR succeeds we will know that there a group of companies demanding a specific skill set. Even if ICR does not succeed, we know that people feel the need for professional legitimacy. Whatever happens, I suspect that we will all need to get more ‘professional’ in the wider sense – business-like, organised and so on – as the issues gain prominence and solutions become more important.

Anyway, the only way to find out the state of play is to try. I wish the people behind ICR every luck, and will follow with interest.

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