What is a profession? What is professional responsibility?

A profession is defined as 'a paid occupation, esp. one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification ...'[1]. The first professions were those of clerk in holy orders (that is, priest), lawyer, and surgeon or medical doctor, with accountants, engineers, some architects and patent agents as later additions.

The Hippocratic Oath

The opening words of the Hippocratic Oath the world's first code of professional ethics are as follows:

'I swear by Apollo the physician, and Aesculapius, and Hygeia, and all the gods and goddesses that according to my ability and judgment I will keep this oath and code of ethics.'

Hippocrates


The fundamental principle of a profession is that the professional, that is the individual who practises the profession, is paid a fee in exchange for putting their own self-interest to one side and acting in the best interest of the client. This is different, so the argument goes, from a manager or employee of an industrial or commercial concern. The manager or employee has to compromise between their own interest of making a profit and the interest of their customer, which compromise is normally settled by the market price mechanism, and results in the commercial organization supplying at a trade-off in terms of price and quality. This is perfectly normal and sensible, it is merely saying that commercial organizations supply goods at less than perfect quality most of the time because the customer does not want and is not prepared to pay for, most of the time, the best possible quality. Easy-Jet and Ryanair provide excellent services and offer good value, but are not trying to emulate the same quality of customer experience as first class in one of the old-fashioned national flag carriers. To take a different example, not everyone wants to pay for a Rolls-Royce car. The idea is that professions are different because instead of supplying goods or trade services, they are providing an individual's skill and judgement, and reducing the quality of that is not an option, nor is it fair and reasonable, in the same way that filling an aircraft with cheaper seats to reduce price is. Note that the professional can still reduce costs to the client, by spending less time on a task, but this is not the same as reducing quality.

Another difference between a profession and other businesses is that because what is being sold is essentially the output of a human mind, it is much harder to check the quality of the output than is the case with a tangible good. This makes it harder for the client to check that charging is fair. 'Am I certain it really took four man-weeks to write that business case? No, I have to trust you.' In contrast, one can compare prices for a flight on different airlines by simply logging onto the web.

The argument is that a professional's fee is set sufficiently high so that they simply have no need to even think about making a trade-off in terms of quality. In return for the privilege of not having to worry about profit as much as non-professional businesses do, the professional is under a special obligation not to take advantage. That is the fundamental principle behind professional ethics and responsibility. Whether or not project management is a profession, and whether (and by how much) professions differ from non-professions, as has been argued above, are all interesting points, but are outside the scope of this book. The argument was explained as a way of setting the context for professional responsibility, and this book assumes that project management is a profession.

So what is professional responsibility and what is meant by a professional code of conduct? A professional code of conduct is generally a list of behaviours and standards that a professional person declares publicly that they will commit to uphold. Indeed, the term 'professional' has its roots in middle English, as the vow made on entering a religious order, and from the Latin profiteri, 'to declare publicly'. In the same way that a medical doctor promises to first do no harm, it is the project manager's responsibility to act ethically, with integrity and professionalism throughout the lifetime of the project and beyond. This often means putting the needs of the project and stakeholders before the project manager's own needs. In order to achieve this, the project manager must understand any legal requirements, ethical standards and stakeholder values that affect or are affected by the project. The PMI requires all entrants to the PMP to sign a declaration committing to abide by the PMI's Project Management Code of Professional Conduct. However, regardless of whether or not the project manager has the PMP certification, they are in a position of responsibility and should act accordingly.

The general principles of professional conduct, whatever the profession, that follow from the above are as follows:

  • Put the client's interest first, especially if they clash with your own personal interests.

  • Understand what the client wants and what their interests are in relation to your work and your profession.

  • Know your own competence and its limits, and do not take on work beyond your competence, nor claim to have competence that you do not in fact possess.

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Definitive Guide to Project Management. The Fast Track to Getting the Job Done on Time and on Budget
The Definitive Guide to Project Management: The fast track to getting the job done on time and on budget (2nd Edition)
ISBN: 0273710974
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 217
Authors: Sebastian Nokes
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