David Weinberger
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The problem with professionals

29 January 2001

Becoming a professional is a class aspiration. Being treated in a professional manner is almost always a good thing. Professionalism is a virtue. Professionals qua professionals do positive things such as live up to their obligations and support a code of ethics. Professionals are reliable, trustworthy and treat other professionals with respect, as well as possibly giving them a serious discount. But professionalism is only helpful up to a point. After that, it becomes an obstacle to collaboration, productivity and Building a Better Tomorrow.

The problem with professionalism is that it becomes a class if not actually a cult. Professionals frequently develop a language of their own not only to abbreviate their discussions but also to impress their clients and to exclude others. More subtly, there are rules of behavior and even of dress intended to draw a line between Us and Them Others. The conformity of professionalism is a consequence not of anything important or good about professionalism but of the desire of professionals to appear part of a privileged class. Professionalism can also be an excuse for narrow thinking that makes success more ahievable by dumbing down the requirements.

There is another tradition that captures what's good about professionalism without its unncessary and sometimes insulting characteristics. Craftspeople take as much care about their work as professionals but without the Mont Blanc in their shirt pockets. Craftspeople, by definition, are focused on their work. By "work" I don't mean their careers or their jobs but the work of their hands, the thing they are shaping. Their integrity comes from their commitment to that which is in their hands. Because of this focus, the outer trappings of their "job" become much less important.

Every work of the human hand is unique. The craftsperson understands this. Professionals, to the contrary, adopt the trappings of all other professionals in order to be recognized as a member of the professional class. The craftsperson works with the material in front of her. The professional looks for an efficient methodology to apply. There's nothing wrong with a methodology so long as it remains alert to differences as it looks for similarities.

So, imagine that we took all the professionals and reconceived them simply as craftspeople. (This is an exercise in transforming a myth, or, if you prefer, an exercise in poetry). Whatever difference it would make is a clue to what we don't need in professionalism.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.

Editor’s note: David Weinberger’s KMWorld column entitled "Secrets in a Day-Lit World", has been selected by MeansBusiness as one of the top 10 recent business ideas.