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?

    • Rowland Freeman (HBS MBA '53)
    • Former VP, Strategic Planning, MacDonnell Douglas, Retired, but still active as Chairman of local

    Having practiced and taught business management for a fair piece of time, I do think business management should be considered a profession. Law and medicine are art forms too, since they constantly change due to research, and in the case of law to judicial interpretation. Our body of knowledge is as firm as law, having been practiced since the beginning of time. Think of the Biblical story of Joseph's organization of Egypt for the famine, and other management problems.

    Certification would be no more difficult than it was to certify logisticians or professional procurement personnel. Accountability is very important, and the lack of personal integrity got the scandals going in the business field. There are rats in the medical and legal professions even with the Hippocratic Oath and legal standards of conduct.

    Let's get on with it and go for professionalizing business management. Certification can help clean up our act.

    • Mok Tuck Sung, MD
    • Fountstrategy International

    I think certification of business management does not seem to bear a direct relationship on bringing about a decline in ethical wrongdoings, nor would it necessarily bring success to a business.

    We have millions of successful business people around the world who are creating employment for millions of people, and a great proportion of these successful people are not formally qualified in business management. On the flip side, we have many certified professionals who commit business crimes every day.

    The final score of a business is to bring value to its owners, stakeholders, employees, and society in a respectable way. Making certification necessary for managers is to narrow our thinking and take a step backward toward demarcation, resulting in a decline in entrepreneurial spirit.

    • Nishant Miglani
    • Student, University of Waterloo

    On the one hand, I think it is of great importance to have governing standards and institutions, especially those concerning ethics, in any field of work including business management. On the other, I have always thought of business management as more reliant on so-called common sense than other comparable occupations.

    Given increasing corporate malfeasance and public distrust, I am leaning towards the hope that business management will officially be considered a profession—with all the educational prerequisites and legal accountability for its practitioners that would tag along with such a move. I feel that this will catapult credibility for business professionals in society on the whole, and consequently benefit economic activity and society in the long run. That said, implementing such a vision on a large scale is where I feel the real challenge lies.

    • Anonymous

    In my experience, licensing and renewal is nothing more than a bureaucratic shuffle with minimal oversight and almost no enforcement. Look at the medical profession as an example. Five percent of the doctors create 95 percent of the medical malpractice issues, and the profession still refuses to regulate itself in the face of ever-rising insurance costs.

    While I support a common body of knowledge and an ethics code, I believe the regulatory control needs to be supported by a set of laws that make serious offenses a criminal issue. Possibly an arm of the SEC.

    • Jamal Barghouti
    • Engineering Advisor to government

    Deciding if a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable does not change the nature of the tomato. Calling management a profession or a skill or a job may only change where it is listed in the Yellow Pages. Laws and regulations, even when they don't help, must be upheld. But, law managed only to give birth to organized crime during Prohibition.

    Certifying managers to stem corruption is only misdirecting the energy thrust against corruption. Corruption is a breach in the wall of ethics, morals, and our value system, not in the body of knowledge or credentials. Enforcement of these walls and safeguarding the citadel with vigilance—and floodlights—is what we need.

    • Deepak Alse
    • System Design Engineer—VNGN, Wipro Technologies

    Practicing managers of unquestionable integrity need to communicate the fact that management is a systematic attempt at understanding and working with dynamic factors. The art and science of management is far less about profit maximization than it is about effective creation and development of value.

    Management as a profession depends largely on collective actions and responsibilities; professional management education is all about providing the basic tools and perspectives necessary to working as a manager. Unlike doctors, lawyers, or clergymen, where individuals directly affect the results, a manager's role is more similar to that of a symphony conductor. Licensing or professional tags will not have any impact on the personal ethics or motives inspiring actions of the individual.

    What we really need are more independent and involved directors on the board, since malpractice occurs due to lack of accountability within the organization.

    • Anonymous

    I think certification is one of the dumbest ideas to come along in years. Looking at the big picture, the vast majority of economic growth in the U.S. has not come from large businesses, but from small ones. Many of these small businesses are started by entrepreneurs, many of whom have minimal formal training. In fact, studies have shown that the most successful entrepreneurs have not done very well in school. (They tended to have a B- average; A students make awful entrepreneurs.) In addition, most of the great business innovations have come from people doing things that defy conventional business wisdom.

    So if we require certification to run a business, we will potentially crush the machine that drives business growth, namely entrepreneurship and innovation. The result will be a regimentation of practices that are destined for obsolescence (but must be continued to keep one's certification). Where is the wisdom in this? We cannot force amoral people to act morally through certification. But, in the process of trying, we could stifle the economy and ruin the U.S. competitive advantage of innovation and entrepreneurship.

    • Meg Garland
    • The Garland Group, Texas

    Of course it 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. Medicine has a basic canopy of practices to connect podiatry with proctology, but how might we quantify the management of a tire store with the management of a multinational? Degrees and certifications will not remove the sludge: It will merely add another layer of legitimacy to be flaunted when only solid ethics and integrity should be required.

    • Deepa S. Prabhu

    In addition, or even beyond the four dimensions of what defines a professional, is the underlying fifth dimension of being "value-based." Just as the value governing the profession of medicine is to heal and of law is to provide justice, the debate still rages as to what is the purpose of business. To create wealth? To maximize profits? To create a larger social benefit?

    The challenge arises from the fact that while trading, business, and production activities have been conducted throughout history, the equitable distribution of wealth, opportunities, and other related activities in former times was governed by larger social norms or the prevalent cultural and economic structure in society. The issue today is not so much about the perils of large corporations and managers who are not professionals (by definition of the four dimensions), but the breakdown of social norms and the lack of effective measures to ensure they are upheld. These are norms distilled from culture, religion, ethics, and in some instances even monarchy.

    Today, this has got lost in the gray areas that lie between all the professions and professionals, including government. The issue is not so much about having a code of conduct, but adhering to it.

    To ask if managers should be called professionals is like asking if politicians, bureaucrats, and government officials can be called professionals. What about a person who has an MBA and, for the purpose of discussion, let's assume has fulfilled all the four dimensions criteria. If this person chooses to join the government or become a politician, can he or she still be described as a professional? Excesses and misdemeanors of business managers never operate in isolation. They are facilitated and even supported by the other professions.

    To qualify as a professional, it would be easier to set criteria along the four dimensions, and that may just prove to be a good start. Maybe in a hundred years the profession of "management" would qualify?

    • Anonymous

    This [certification of managers] may be the only thing that will save the business community. The widespread scandals; disrespect of both the customer and the employee; arrogance of management and their demands for higher salaries at a time when workers' wages and benefits are stagnating; and the emphasis on the bottom line above all may lead to a more radical change than many people might want.

    • Frederick P. Bartlett
    • V.P. and General Manager, Kalmar Industries Corp.

    Although there would be advantages to having certification, I believe that it would be impractical. Millions of people have some business knowledge or skill. Many of these people own businesses or run business operations for others. The level of expertise varies greatly.

    An MBA degree is perhaps the best current certification for business knowledge. Unlike law or medicine, business knowledge is not easily quantified. It is difficult to test for business knowledge outside of business schools. Good examples of knowledge failures include Bernie Ebbers and Kenneth Lay. What testing or certification procedure would have precluded the damage that these men caused?

    • Anonymous

    As a strategic marketing consultant who is perceived to be "pretty good" with over twenty years of success, I would welcome the opportunity to give my profession-management consulting-and management in general more legitimacy through certification. It may put me out of business, because I spend most of my time cleaning up others' messes, but it may make our businesses more successful the first time around.

    • Kim Osorio
    • Human Resources, Dentsply

    I believe that certification will become more and more common as people are held accountable. Within my field of human resources, we already have a certification program to earn designations as a PHR (Professional in Human Resources) or SPHR (Senior Professional in HR). I currently have my PHR, which was obtained after passing an intensive four-hour test that covered a wide range of topics that an HR professional must deal with daily. I believe in the certification process since it indicates that a person is knowledgeable and willing to stay abreast of developments in his or her chosen career through continued learning and recertification.

    • Michele Spence
    • Owner, Spence & Associates

    I believe that there should be some sort of accreditation/certification required—even for me. With all of the ways available to obtain an MBA (a degree that used to mean far more than it does now), it is difficult to weed out the competent from the incompetent. In the past ten years, with the rise in self-employment, there is a trend towards consultants in this area who have either academic experience with little/no real-world experience or the opposite: practicality without the underlying basics of finance, HR, organizational development, and so on. Both can be a disaster waiting to happen for companies that hire them to either expand their businesses or provide guidance through difficult economic times. Requiring people who want to specialize in this area to go through a process of holding up their knowledge and skills to the scrutiny of an industry standard should provide better service to clients and organizations in the long run.

    • Faisal Shaheen
    • Research Associate, Sustainable Development Policy Institute

    If such a task of certification were to be embraced by the business management community, a path of least resistance and ease of access by the masses of management gurus would probably be through the trade and/or industry associations. While simple consensus-building alone is a massive undertaking, at least such associations could offer a practical starting point.

    • John Anderson
    • Principal, The Glowan Consulting Group

    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. To illustrate my point, a few words: trial lawyers, plastic surgeons, [errant] Catholic priests.

    What we do need is public and private leadership that demonstrates moral and ethical behavior. Our parenting, educational systems, and businesses need to hold people to higher standards. More regulation, controls, and ruinous legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley will not bring our academic colleagues what they desire.

    • Gerald Schultz
    • Retired, AMP

    It is hard for me to imagine that certification by itself would have a significant impact on a CEO's ethics. There are just as many unethical doctors and lawyers as there are CEOs. The most recent problems such as Enron and WorldCom were more related to greedy bankers and shareholders than a few greedy CEOs. The stock market bubble impacted most companies, but most companies were prepared. Managing results to meet short-term goals is prevalent throughout the professional and business world. People say, "I know I am going to exceed my budget, but I hope that I can find a way to hide it until I get that new account."

    The real problem is the ability of CEOs to be CEOs. Better education and training could help CEOs do a better job, but there are still good and bad doctors and lawyers. A person can become the CEO of a business due to technical expertise, luck, or one good idea. Can we tell the CEO and owner of a business that he must be certified? I feel it is the responsibility of the board of directors, first, and then of the other members of the team to make sure the CEO is ethical. If we replaced the large number of CEOs on the board of directors of public companies with employees, shareholders, and professionals, and then made them responsible for the action of the CEO, the chances of another Enron would be much less.

    • Harsh K. Sharan
    • Faculty--OB & HR, ICFAI Business School, Gurgaon, India

    The debate over this issue will lend growing credence to an acceptance of management as the latest profession. Since management is not as old as other professions (medicine or the clergy), several more decades will elapse before it is taken for granted as a profession. The sum of all our experiences and interpretations constitutes the "body of knowledge" we tend to look for.

    • Cesar Franco
    • Financial Advisor, Royal Alliance Associates, Inc.

    Certification is a great idea. However, I don't see it being implemented any time soon. We are talking about policing millions of senior managers. The private body in charge of certification would have to certify job positions, not an industry. Also, by implementing this type of system, you open up a greater risk liability for managers. This is great for attorneys, and we all know we need more of them....

    This type of system is not new to the financial services field. The NASD and SEC supervise our industry, and every year I have to do several hours of continuing education. Not to mention that my E&O coverage [Errors and Omissions] has more than doubled in the last several years thanks to the "geniuses" at Enron.

    Does knowing that you are being watched and the fear of losing your license possibly keep you from doing anything illegal? I think it makes it more difficult to act unethically or to try anything illegal when you know you are not the only one in the room. So this system might not be so bad after all, even though it is a pain. Some senior managers make millions, so let them justify their pay by being certified to do their job. A true professional would welcome this type of system, and not disagree with it; in any case, it would probably only apply to newly appointed managers.

    All I know is that if a private body is formed to be in charge of this, I would like to be the one spearheading it.

    • Robert P. Morin
    • Governor, The Order of Chartered Administrators, Quebec

    I am one of the founders of L'Ordre des Administrateurs Agréés du Québec in 1954. We still believe that management is a profession. Send me your address and I will be pleased to send you a copy of the Chronicle 1954-2004 of our Order.

    • Alex Alvaro
    • Manager, A public company

    Business management is already a profession, but it has not yet achieved the creation of a professional body of requirements like that of medicine, accounting, law, engineering, and so on. As is explained in the article, scandals and malpractice in the business world are paving the way for a universal code of ethics, and ultimately, the creation of some firm and clear guidelines as applied to other professions. A professional business license is a long topic in itself: Will we have general business licenses, specialization licenses, and degrees within licensing per actual business achievements (based on experience)? I am sure many creative contributors can see beyond this and more.

    • Anonymous

    The question is moot, because it is asked in response to major scandals. If mistakes had occurred due to poor education, then a better definition of the profession and the providing of certificates would solve the problem. Those behind the scandals were not ignorant, but smart, unethical people with seniority. They acted deliberately, and no piece of paper can change their character.

    People trust doctors because doctors have education and legal oversight, giving weight to their advice and trust to their ability to handle complex issues. A butcher would not be trusted to perform an operation, because the issue is a lack of knowledge and experience. Similarly, organizations want educated management because few projects intentionally fail, so a smarter management team can better handle issues with a greater chance of success. Certification and the like will put more capable people in charge, but those who want to lie and steal will continue to lie and steal. There's no difference.

    What is needed is accountability. It's not uncommon to see CEOs step in and destroy the long-term chances of the company to drive up the stock price, then sell their shares and walk out. Even when CEOs do horribly, golden parachutes allow them to make millions when forced out. Lower-level employees aren't given this luxury: If they don't perform they can be fired with only minimal fallout. Corporations must be forced, kicking and screaming, into making executives accountable, and remove their ability to rob employees and stockholders blind. How to do this is the longstanding issue.