Skip to main content
Management in Practice

Should management be a profession?

Should managers be trained to follow mechanistic organizational rules or to make decisions based on holistic understanding of the situations they face? Peter Bearman describes an often overlooked aspect of professionalism—discretion—and what it means for management.

  • Peter Bearman
    Jonathan Cole Professor of Social Science, Columbia University; Director, Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy

As the question, "Should management be a profession?" was assigned, I will try to answer it in this little essay. Only very indirectly will I try to answer the question, "How could we make management a profession?"—a problem that seems better suited for those whose job it is to do just that.

The standard approach to professionalism tells us that it is a movement designed to assert legitimate claim over a body of knowledge and the field of application appropriate for that knowledge to a specific group of persons. This claim is also, and not inconsequentially, often linked to the idea of service, so that the profession is construed as oriented towards service to something both larger than the individual members who compose it and itself. The professionals, that group of persons who become professional, are typically produced and sustained through a broad array of ordination rituals, sartorial displays, practical languages, and "tricks of the trade," all of which serve to mark them off as within the profession and distinct from those outside. It follows that professions police multiple kinds of boundaries: boundaries of knowledge, boundaries of personnel, and boundaries of sites for the application of their knowledge. In this regard, the successful professional movement is a movement that expands the boundaries of legitimate claims to expertise and the sites for the expression of their practice, and controls the flows of persons in and out of the practicing group. Professions also articulate a rhetoric of service to an ideal and in the service of this ideal demand adherence to ethical principles. About these elements of professionalism there is, I believe, little disagreement. It reveals something important about professionalism that there can be such consensus over so many aspects of its meaning.

The demand to follow ethical principles in action deserves some more attention. In general, this demand insists that professionals contribute to the public (rather than private) good, and that their behavior is guided by external precepts; for example, physicians are enjoined to do no harm, and anthropologists likewise foreswear harming the people and animals they contemplate. There are other aspects of professionalism not always part of the definitional canon. One body of work concentrates on the apparent absence of hierarchy within professional groups, whereas another suggests that groups reveal themselves to be professions when their internal status hierarchy is the inverse of their public claim to legitimacy of service. This second argument, developed by Andrew Abbott, is by far more compelling. It is intuitively well understood that status in the helping professions accrues to those least contaminated by contact with the public the profession claims to serve; a pattern as true for physicians as it is for lawyers and academics. For example, low on the prestige scale in law is the defense lawyer, in medicine it is the family practitioner, and (aside, of course, from schools of management) in the academy it is the dean, and especially, the dean of students. Sociologists are not exempted either; applied sociology has lower status than its analytic cousins. These lowly jobs within the profession are just those jobs that bring professionals into contact with the persons they serve, and yet it is precisely this contact that is ritually polluting. The tensions here are palpable: professional legitimation arises from claims to serve the public—to do good—yet contact with the public is contaminating and reduces status.

Oddly, one element of the professions seems often to be less central in definitions, although it is central to the experience of being a professional, and this is the capacity to make substantive decisions—or discretion. I will propose that discretion is, in fact, an element at the core of professions, and a crucial element at that. Discretion rests on a particular and powerful (claim to) knowledge—the capacity to locate events and actions in their proper spatial, temporal, relational, and narrative context. Consider, for example, the jurisdictional war underway between proponents of evidence-based medicine and traditionalist MDS. The idea of evidence-based medicine appears beyond reproach; who, after all, would prefer a physician who does not believe in evidence over one who does? But is this debate really as simple as just another incarnation of the long struggle between secular scientists and religious mystics? And if so, who are the mystics—the physicians or the evidence-based epidemiologists? It turns out that the answer is not so obvious.

Ignore the realities of the HMO, managed care, and the 15-minute comprehensive physical. Ideally, when you walk into the physician's office, your doctor confronts you as a whole person, and if we take physicians at their word, they do strive in their practice to see the whole person in front of them and their whole narrative history. The last thing on their minds is a disembodied object composed of variables, each with different risk profiles (male, 50, white, former smoker, infrequent exerciser, and so on). And for good reason, for we hope that physicians are, after all, in the business of treating those people who come into their office, not the statistical summaries that compose them. For the physician, the relevant evidence is not the mystical set of probabilities abstracted as independent elements from an imaginary whole; it is the real person in front of them. The knowledge claim that asserts that it is legitimate to act substantively on that unique single person—independent of the probabilities that arise from populations of persons with some (but not all) similar profiles, or even in contradiction to "known risk"—is a claim to the legitimacy of discretion, of the capacity to make substantive decisions. And of course, it is a quintessential professional claim.

Judges make the same claim when they strive to reject structured sentencing schemes enacted by know-nothing legislatures that require mandatory terms for specific crimes. And when faced with important decisions that have long-term implications, we do the same in our everyday life. Imagine the following choice: You could pick your romantic partner on the basis of sociological studies of the determinants of happiness in marriage pairs, or you could pick your partner on the basis of, well, love and attraction. Just to make the choice more challenging I will point out that the numbers are not so good for the romantic love model. If marriage partners were patients, more than a third of them would be dead within seven years. I am certain the sociological optimization program based on the evidence (or a yenta) would do better. But even if we knew that it did outperform romantic love, which would you choose, the mystical statistical evidence or the real tangible evidence? One of the puzzles about online dating seems to be that the more information one has (that is, the more abstracted elements of the biography at one's disposal), the less likely matches are to be made, even though in both the on- and off-line worlds homophily on those same attributes within marriage pairs is high. This suggests that in romance, and in business, context, case, narrative, and temporality—things not easily absorbed into an evidence-based technical machine and which provide the basis for discretionary judgment—are important.

Being a professional is, of course, all about service and boundaries and knowledge and discourse and practice and ritual purity and jurisdictions and exclusion and ordination and degrees and distinct technical language and expertise—all that stuff that scholars of professionals describe. But it is also all about preserving the capacity to make substantive judgments based on whole cases. The jurisdictional wars of knowledge boundaries and the claims to expertise within unique settings are worth little more than a nice suit if not deployed to preserve discretion. In this regard, being a professional is about having the capacity to do the right thing—or, more precisely, the substantively rational thing.

Does this imply that those selling evidence-based medicine or other technocratic solutions to design problems are not professionals? That is certainly not nominally true. Engineers really need technical engineering expertise (in addition to substantive understandings) to know how high a levee should be if their goal is to stop floods from hurricanes. To gain that technical expertise they need to learn skills. And we would certainly want them to be beholden to some ethical principles to guarantee that the levees they do build are well built and do serve the public good. But there is a difference between substantive problems and design problems, and a definition of professionalism that rests on narrow technical expertise married to a service ethos is insufficient for our ends. Somewhere in the mix has to be room for discretion. And it is striking in this collision of different kinds of claims to knowledge that the humanist claim—the claim to have the capacity to get the whole case as a whole-is losing ground to formalism. But this humanist claim—the claim that understanding requires understanding of the case as a whole—is central to professional activity.

So what does this have to do with management? If there is general consensus on the nature of professionalism—even if discretion is often left out—such consensus cannot be so easily found with respect to management. One kind of connection between management and professionalism can be made by reference to traditional sociological conceptions of leadership arising from Weber, who distinguishes between those who live "for" politics versus those who live "off" politics, and suggests that the true leader is the one who acts because "s/he can do no other." In this context, the true leader is one motivated by exogenous (to context) values that stand above the fray of instrumental rationality. Since schools of management should be in the business of generating leaders, but not the values those leaders—because they can do no other—should pursue, professionalism's appeal to ethical principles as a guide to action (providing a bulwark against the narrow pursuit of individual self-interest) provides a simple rationale for professionalizing management. This is certainly a fine argument. If professions were mainly about ethical precepts it would be sufficient. But professionalism as I have defined it is about discretion.

While I think that schools of management are in the business of generating leaders, it is my sense that the practical experiences of management and the tangible demands of management are much more complex than the simple demand of leadership, which is to "act because one can do no other." The practical, effective manager is someone who creates a context in which those who work for him or her have the capacity to do—and do—the right things, not because they think that is what their boss wants them to do (which is compliance based on fear), but because within the set of alternatives they face, doing the right thing for the organization is really right for them. Note that some organizational designs fail to provide a mechanism for matching self-interest and collective interest, whereas others succeed in doing so. For example, bureaucratic organizations in which orders flow down and information flows up may be fine for getting things done, but are sub-optimal for getting the right things done. I have purposefully not defined "right things." That is because, if the right thing can be defined ex ante, then it is purely technical—a piece of machinery insensitive to changing context—and so the management of the process becomes an engineering problem, which while perhaps requiring supervision does not require either professionals or managers. The right thing is emergent in context, finding it is what management is about.

Focusing on how to bind self-interest into collective interest, Tocqueville provides one model. Tocqueville was interested in how to secure freedom in a context of equality. He recognized that freedom depends on the creation of citizens, and so he focused on how secondary associations could provide schools for liberty, transforming self-interest into self-interest properly understood. By self-interest properly understood, Tocqueville means the capacity to situate interest in a broader stream of temporal, spatial, relational, and narrative contexts in order to make substantively just decisions—the central element of citizenship. For Tocqueville, participation in small local associations provides people with the opportunity to practice citizenship—that is practice substantive decision making.

In this regard, the school for liberty works like a committee—or at least how a committee should work. In contrast to other models of legislative compromise popular at the time, the "compromise" that Tocqueville had in mind was not simply of locating the median position within the space of competing interests, but in achieving something unique—the collective interest. I am going to assert that this collective interest is what we mean by doing the right thing, or making decisions on the basis of substantive rationality, as versus formal application of rules. In this imagery, successful management—which involves doing the right thing—is about finding the collective good, and the mechanism for finding it turns out to be generating citizens from active participation. Effective managers are those who preserve discretion by ensuring that those who work for them have the capacity to act with discretion.

I have not considered rules, standard operating procedures, fancy grids, or any similar elements of organizations that are used by management to eliminate the capacity (though not the need) for substantive decisions. These systems are antithetical to professional management, since they can only be relevant to one temporal viewpoint; treat elements of cases as the units of operation, whether these cases are persons, groups, or other organizations; and insist on the unambiguous application of formal rules that are necessarily insensitive to the large narrative context in which they arise. Such systems may give managers something to do—override the decisions rendered by the system—but the autonomy of managers is limited to adjudicating between different views rather than finding the single solution that embodies the goals of both, at the same time.

Summarizing, effective management in organizations is embedded in organizational design—a design that enables the short-term interests of local actors to match the longer-term interests of the collectivity. It is trivially easy through rules to eliminate one or another view. But no formal decision-rules can capture even short- and long-term views at the same time. The skill of management is the simultaneous preservation of both time horizons, but also of multiple views arising from multiple local standpoints. To do this, one needs to have the capacity to integrate complex relational, temporal, and narrative streams into a single whole—what we often call a case. Thinking about cases is a professional activity; thinking about variables is an engineering problem. Management, under this definition, should certainly be a profession. What else could it be? For what it means to be a professional is to have the ability to treat cases as whole objects, with a deep attention to their narrative past.