• 07 Mar 2005
  • What Do You Think?

Should Business Management Be Regarded as a Profession?

How would the business world—and society—be different if managers needed to be licensed the way doctors, lawyers, and the clergy are?
by James Heskett

Summing Up

Many of this month's respondents appear to agree that business management is a profession, but certification will do little to influence its practice. Of course, we may have a bit of a response bias here, since respondents appear to be current or aspiring managers or teachers of management.

Meg Garland makes this case when she writes, "Of course it (business management) should be regarded as a profession, but certified and registered? Probably not. Such paper shuffling and submission certainly hasn't elevated every attorney, real estate agent, insurance agent, or doctor." According to Mok Tuck Sung (who is an MD), "Making certification necessary for managers is to narrow our thinking and take a step backward...resulting in a decline in entrepreneurial spirit." Frederick Bartlett offered his version of this point of view: "Although there would be advantages to having certification, I believe that it would be impractical...Unlike law or medicine, business knowledge is not easily quantified."

Others objected to the idea that certification might somehow be a good response to the recent incidences of corruption in business. Gerald Schultz put it this way: "It is hard for me to imagine that certification by itself would have a significant impact on a CEO's ethics...The real problem is the ability of CEOs to be CEOs." John Anderson commented that "Let's not assume that these so-called 'professionals' (doctors, lawyers, clergy) somehow behave differently from business people because they have passed some kind of certification process." As Deepak Alse put it, "Licensing or professional tags will not have any impact on the personal ethics...What we really need are more independent and involved directors on the board."

There were, however, counterviews. Rowland Freeman makes the case that "Our body of knowledge is as firm as law...Certification would be no more difficult than it was to certify logisticians or professional procurement personnel." While concluding that it won't be implemented soon, Cesar Franco commented, "Certification is a great idea...Some senior managers make millions, so let them justify their pay by being certified to do their job." Others suggested that the point is moot; many practitioners of business today are certified. As Franco points out, "This type of system is not new to the financial services field." And Kim Osorio reminds us, "Within my field of human resources we already have a certification program... ."

Will recent events lead to a more intense debate, as Deepa Prabhu suggests, about the very "purpose of business"? Do you agree with Harsh Sharan when he writes, "The debate over the issue itself will lend growing credence to an acceptance of management as the latest profession"? What do you think?

Original Article

Is business management a profession? Should it employ the institutions and conform to the strictures and codes of ethics similar to those characteristic of medicine, law, and the clergy? These are two of the questions posed in a provocative article reprinted from a new book, Restoring Trust in American Business, and posted to Working Knowledge recently under the title, "Is Business Management a Profession?" In it, Harvard Business School colleagues Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria and their research associate, Daniel Penrice, propose that it comes up short on several dimensions characteristic of other professions. First, there is the question of whether business management relies on "a common body of knowledge resting on a well-developed, widely accepted theoretical base."

Even if one believes that it meets this test, say the authors, it would also have to embody: 1) "a system for certifying that individuals possess (this common body of knowledge) before being ... allowed to practice" (with attendant licensing and license renewal), 2) "a commitment to specialized knowledge as a public good" with an implicit "renunciation of profit maximization" (as opposed to mere profit-making) as a goal, and 3) adherence to a code of ethics developed by and reviewed by a universally-recognized professional institution.

The authors imply that the absence of the institutions of a profession that one finds in medicine, law, and the clergy may have contributed to the spate of large-scale scandals that have arisen in business in recent years. One might also add that the absence of such institutions makes it difficult to identify and prosecute "business malpractice." Their availability could, on the other hand, make it more difficult for a high-profile CEO to extricate himself from a jury conviction by committing the outrage of pleading total ignorance of massive financial fraud in his organization. (Can you imagine a doctor charged with malpractice doing this?) Clearly, the debate is just being shaped.

The implications of what is proposed here are immense. What are the boundaries defining business management? Regardless of how they are drawn, isn't it likely that it involves millions more than currently practiced in any other profession? Just how do such masses obtain certification? Does a "renunciation of profit maximization" somehow bring into question oft-stated goals that have come to be considered at the core of the meaning of a "market-based society"? And what professional organization would be able to define and enforce, presumably by delicensing, such a code of ethics?

On the other hand, are we already heading down the path toward certification? After all, thanks to the "ignorance" of those being prosecuted currently, senior managers of public companies are now required to certify their own financial results. Can certification of their ability to manage be far behind? And if a private body does not step forward to manage the certification process, will it continue to fall to Congress, the SEC, and other public bodies to do so?

Or should we just stop calling business management a profession? What do you think?