The journey to ‘Professional’

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Motivated, empathetic, ethical and creative – these are the new characteristics and competencies that leading employers seek beyond just technical knowledge. The concept of ‘job market’ does not capture the complexity and dynamics of the modern work environment, and things are not as simple as ‘supply and demand’. Many companies – from local enterprises to international corporations – are dedicating increasing amount of resources in searching, recruiting and developing talent. Breaking away from oversimplified chilches like ‘millennials’ and ‘digital natives’, young people bring about new perspectives, tools and abilities that fundamentally challenge the structure of the workforce. Simultaneously, universities are trying to respond to the right balance between technical (often referred to as employability skills) and academic skills, although such divide is rather wrong and futile.

While Wired magazine warns of the automation of key professions, such as accountancy, we argue that technical knowledge cannot ever be context-independent and universal; and it is rather situated in context which requires a professional to have the capacity of judgment and ethical compass in order to act in the best way. Thus, through our work with AuditFutures Philosophy for Accountancy initiative, we support the image of a ‘professional’ as more than a technical expert (or a robot), but a practically-wise and motivated individual whose orientations is to doing good work with perceived purpose. In his “Professionalism: The Third Logic (On the Practice of Knowledge), (2001) Eliot Freidson defines a profession as

an ideology that asserts greater commitment to doing good work than to economic gain and to the quality rather than the economic efficiency of work…

 

The Philosophy for Accountancy initiative

Over the past two years, we have developed and successfully piloted the Philosophy for Accountancy (P4A) initiative that seeks to re-invigorate the role of education and to explore key issues that impact the profession. The action-research has emphasized the need for education and training to impact the development of professional identity in such a way as to bring out capacities of judgment in combination with ethical orientation to practice. Through content-specific discussions, P4A sessions contextualize technical knowledge and open up a democratic space of reason where students and young professionals are encouraged to consider the purpose and greater public good of their profession. We believe has the potential to foster personal motivation and development of a virtuous character beyond the technical knowledge and skills.

Our aspiration is to respond to the need for more motivated and critical professionals, by working systemically with academics, universities and firms. Universities are the place where an aspiring professional starts his/her narrative, re-thinks values and develops the foundation of a professional identity. We are currently working with undergraduate accounting programmes in the UK to understand what needs to happen on a strategic level to enable universities to have the time and space to focus on character and contextualise technical knowledge. We have received a great support and response from universities in Manchester, Durham and Middlesex, who have engaged with us to develop their curriculum and teaching approaches. While universities are foundational and essential to impact character development, professional institutions and firms are where a professionals flourishes and completes their aspiration. Thus, we have also responded to the interest from leading professional services firms, to open a discussion around character, competencies and virtues in professionals.

The philosophical inquiry sessions, which we have developed and facilitated as part of the initiative, work to unpack core concepts (i.e. professionalism, values, public good, ethicality and behaviour), and attempt to create a community of inquiry that could foster the conditions in which a young professional may co-construct and internalise the higher, inner good which the professional practice strives toward. This in return could foster personal motivation and development of a virtuous character (beyond the technical knowledge and skills). Following Aristotle’s virtue ethics, our approach attempts to be responsive to the three means by which individuals become good and virtuous – nature, habit and reason. Through content-led inquiry, we attempt to foster a space of reason in which the individual may reflect on his/her nature and develop a habit of making better-informed decisions. Through our Pilot programme at Manchester Business School, the sessions have attempted to develop in students MacIntyre’s notion of narrative unity – a genuine understanding and appreciation of the final good that one strives toward (both personally and professionally) creates the narrative and the higher purpose that grounds the ‘authentic practice’ and moral agency of the professional.

The soul of professionalism

The soul of professionalism is ethics, where “transcendent values add moral substance to the technical content of disciplines” (Freidson, 2001). In attempting to develop the foundations of ethicality in students, we went beyond the cognitive approaches of solving ethical dilemmas, to understand how to foster character as opposed to fostering compliance. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is quite clear about the fact that it is the cultivation of character that counts, long before we begin to ‘rationalize’ our actions, and the formulation of general principles.

Through P4A sessions over the past two years, we’ve responded to this by unpacking the idea of a dilemma, to understand the complexity of context, the impact of personal relationships, values and other moral commitments that affect one’s decision-making process. Engaging in the complexity of dilemmas has introduced students to the essential components which guide and act on our ethical behaviour – sensitivity, reasoning, intent and courage. These exercises and critical discussions have opened up the concept of ‘ethicality’ for deeper understanding and has fundamentally challenged students to internalise and develop metacognitive capacities.

For one of the sessions looking at decision-making, students were given ethical dilemmas as an assignment to complete on their own. In their answers, students had properly identified the IAESB five fundamental principles (integrity, objectivity, due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour) which are at risk, and had written clean-cut answers that adhered to ‘doing the right thing’. However, when exposed to the complexity of real-life situations and challenged to explain their positions, many students admitted that:

…my choices would depend on the situation…

…a lot of the decisions made by people are based on instinct and on social pressures…

…from this discussion, I became aware that my bias could impact my decisions in the future…

By engaging students in a content-led inquiry space, which unpacks concepts and challenges students in their understanding and interpretations, has significantly facilitated their critical thinking and reflective capacities. While we carefully guide away from relating any relativist notions of what is ‘right’, we carefully challenge and unpack the concepts of professional ethics and behaviour, to enable students’ reflection and internalisation of the essence of the concepts. In opening this up for inquiry, we are better able to see students’ sincere reaction and advance sensitivity and moral reasoning:

because of these session, I am aware why rules matter but also am better prepared to take account of factors that might act on my judgment…

since I have not experienced these dilemmas in real life, I cannot imagine or know how I might react…so my answer could only be hypothetical but doesn’t prepare me for the actual situation…

By fostering a space where these habits of mind could develop, we could create a lasting impact on the character and work of professionals and the culture of leadership that they bring.

A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and the exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods….we have to accept as necessary components of any practice with internal goods and standards of excellence the virtues of justice, courage, and honesty (After Virtue, p 191).