Re-searching ideology for strategic advantage:
Building reputation capital through professionalism

Neil E. Béchervaise
Adjunct Professor
Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship
Swinburne University of Technology
Kevin M. McKenzie
McKenzie Roic Consulting
Richard Beal
Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship
Swinburne University of Technology

Dr Neil Béchervaise is Principal of NB Consulting (Australasia) and Managing Director of Global Research Business P/L developing global research access for postgraduate business researchers. Professor in the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship and former Director of Research, his research interests include knowledge management, change implementation, communications, and multiculturalism.

Dr. Kevin McKenzie is the Principal of McKenzie Roic Consulting, and an experienced Project Manager, Director and Management Consultant. Kevin completed doctoral research in consulting communities of practice. His research interests include knowledge management, informal organisations, communities of practice, corporate strategy, and project management.

At the time of writing, Dr Richard Beal was an e-business strategist for a grain marketing organisation. He was formerly the Vice President - Strategy and Planning for an international organisation with interests in education, entertainment and multimedia production. His doctoral research examines the role of professionalism in leveraging reputational capital to build relationships.
Organisations strive to display professionalism to enhance their relationship and reputation capital in order to establish and maintain strategic competitive advantage.
This paper provides the first stage report of an Australian study examining the origins, role and implications of professionalism as a strategic driver in growing and managing relationship capital. It identifies several aspects of an ideology of professionalism that is possibly trait driven and supported through individual relationships. However, professionalism appears to be far more complex, comprising several other aspects that are independent of organisational demands.
Professionalism is tentatively presented as a universal Western notion with responses from IT, business, military and other professions mirroring previously published responses from horticulturalists, lawyers, nurses and educators. Ethics, autonomy, responsibility, mutual respect, experiential knowledge, altruism and changing professional identity have emerged as commonly agreed elements. The paper submits that, rather than being a tangible and identifiable capability, professionalism is an ideal that is passed between generations of individuals and workers, beginning well before they begin their working (and even schooling) careers, and continuing through their professional education and ongoing professional development.
Though some argue that the professions are in decline, this paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of professionalism for organisations seeking to gain strategic advantage through building relationship and reputation capital.
Key Words: Relationship Capital, Strategic Advantage, Professionalism, Reputational Capital, Reputation, Professional Development


It is 2002. Professionalism is under fire. We are involved in a desperate global war against terror. National league football begins again this week. The US is involved in dismantling the axis of evil. A leading Australian daily newspaper features the dismissal of the musical director of the National opera company!

A woman of international repute, the artistic leader was lured to Australia from Europe under contract to lead the opera company toward a new vision. She established a challenging new direction, initiated tough new rehearsal schedules, and demanded increased production values and performance standards. Dismissed midway through her contract, the official press release recorded that her “visions for the artistic growth of the company are not sustainable by [the firm] in its current financial position”.

When demands for heightened performance impact organisational culture, they often create conflict. When corporate vision is not shared on the shop floor, or when mission statements are unilaterally rewritten, low level resistance may escalate to board level rejection. In the opera community, at least, governing boards may factor financial viability into the professionalism of the company. When perceptions of professionalism in one context do not translate to another, tensions are created as individuals strive for professionalism in multiple communities, each of which may use different criteria to pass judgment.

Professionalism as a concept creates multiple images judged from multiple perspectives. Unravelling this construct involves striking at the heart of reputation capital because it is assumed that individual professionalism within a company directly impacts its reputation among organisational stakeholders. The professionalism demanded within an organisation, though supplied both at individual and group levels, is assessed as impacting the organisation at corporate governance level. Professionalism exercised becomes reputational capital delivered. Tensions resulting from this assumption provide a focus for exploring the essence of professionalism, its acquisition and development, and its value in leveraging reputational capital to create strategic advantage.

This paper presents preliminary findings from an Australian study exploring the genesis, current understanding and perceived advantage of professionalism within a corporate culture. With responses from IT, business, military and other professions mirroring previously published responses from horticulturalists, lawyers, nurses and educators, it reports little evidence to support a common assumption that professionalism is restricted to recognised professions or displayed and shared only among professionals. Instead, the paper records increasing support for a trait driven acquisition model from which personally defined ethics, autonomy, responsibility, mutual respect, experiential knowledge, altruism and developing professional identity have emerged as commonly agreed elements.

Seeking foundations for developing professionalism, the paper reports evidence of professionalism being clearly identified among school students, essentially gender independent and supported in some companies yet ignored or even actively suppressed in others. Acknowledging ongoing concern that the professions are in decline, this paper concludes that the recognised professionalism of individuals and dedicated groups within the firm is a significant element in client evaluation of reputational capital at corporate levels. It supports the view that professionalism is a tacitly understood ideology to which a subset of professionals, non-professionals and everyday people aspire, and that it is instantly recognisable, expected and judged from a variety of perspectives. It accepts that elements of professionalism can be foregrounded for registration and nomination purposes yet cautions that these provide poor measures of reputational capital. Instead, the paper argues that the firm is invariably measured by reference to relationship qualities established at individual and project team levels through contextualisation of the firm as a series of expert communities of practice.

What’s in a word?

Although referring to the data at such an early stage of this paper may seem unusual, it is necessary to clarify the literary meaning of the term “professionalism”. Invariably in the focus groups carried out, the conversation turned to differentiating between the profession, the professional and, finally, professionalism. One focus group member described this process as “unpeeling the layers of cable, until you are left with the core that carries the payload signal – the professionalism of an organisation” (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Deconstructing profess-ion-al-ism

The following sections explore these three distinct layers before proposing an operational definition for professionalism evolved from the research process itself.

Towards a definition of professionalism – professions first

The problem with thinking about professions is that they can be conceptualised in a wide variety of ways (Barker, 1992). Many profess to have gained expertise in their declared field. They may range from elite dancers to skilled teachers and expert funds managers. Others profess to have gained eminence among their peers. Again, they may range - from skilled surgeons and elite military units to renowned entrepreneurs. The acquisition and mastery of expertise in a specific body of knowledge and skill is commonly recognised (eg Kritzer, 1999) as a pre-determinant for recognition, and often for registration, as a professional. Completion of an undergraduate university or trade qualification, minimum periods in practice, on-going involvement in professional development activities may all be requisite for registration to practise within a given profession. Erault (1997) argues that

… most professional learning takes place in the workplace and is facilitated by contact with our work colleagues… The move from “knowing that” to “knowing how” which is the translation of our academic, factual, knowledge into professional or useful applied knowledge is an everyday requirement of a developing professional. (Taylor, 2002, p.68)

Historically, however, professions have been understood at a more fundamental level. Rather than professing to levels of demonstrable expertise or performance level acquired with practice and a modicum of talent or inclination, the professions were based on access to a more intangible element. The warrior carried God on his shield, the physician invoked spells and applied concoctions which drew out evil spirits, the lawyer could determine earthly levels of guilt and innocence while only a priest, under Holy Law, held the power of absolution. Professions traditionally held temporal power through an unchallenged claim of divine association.

More recent developments have diminished general acceptance of those powers and increasingly, we are coming to see formal professionals … as working in institutional or bureaucratic settings that are designed to control workers rather than to foster autonomy (Kritzer, 1999).

The physician’s claims to promote healing must now be supported by significant teams of pharmaceutical and para-medical personnel, overseen by legal advisers and endorsed by State and National Registration Boards. Similarly, surgeons are now recognised as para-professional with physicians under equivalent registration criteria, whereas lawyers have relinquished their quasi-religious power of judgement. Beyond the Star Chamber and the Inquisition, they now plead before more mundane courts in what Abel (1986) terms the "decline of professionalism”.

The shift to judicial definition, governmental regulation, registration and financial commitment to the employment of the professions has resulted in a proliferation of groups arguing their professional status on the basis of equivalent performance and responsibility levels. Teachers, accountants, pharmacists and psychologists all now regard themselves as professionals. With legal recognition and widespread community acceptance, the professions offer high levels of specialised expertise in areas formerly considered as crafts.

A profession of expertise, traditionally, advertised superior performance as a tradesperson – and almost invariably a tradesman. Trades, or crafts, were learned under apprenticeship and mastery was recognised by acceptance into the craft guild.

Becoming a craftsperson was typically a process that involved several years, usually achieved by serving an apprenticeship. The craftsperson usually possessed a number of interrelated skills that together were necessary to produce a type of product. Over time, the guild structure, which typically involved a master craftsperson with a group of apprentices and journeymen working in the master's workshop, developed. (Kritzer, 1999)

Membership in a craft community gave a man dignity and standing. He swore an oath of fealty to his art and its brotherhood, and became the spiritual son of its patron saint. He shared in the bawdy and the solemn rituals of his fellows.

As apprentices became journeyman and mastered the craft, they also learned the expectations and code of conduct of fellow workers. Every skilled trade was shrouded in the "mystery" of custom, experience and know-how that were absorbed only through long hours in the shops. (Rosenbrand, 1999)

A key factor in crafts and cottage industry was personal responsibility. Division of labour existed only in the sharing of work between apprentices and other craftsmen.

If a craftsman was irresponsible, the result was much the same as when a farmer failed to bring in the crop ... he could not survive. Hence craftsmen took great pride in their work, and like the previous generations, they trained their children to be useful and productive members of the community (Penn, 1995, p. 10).

Rites of passage into the expert community of craft practice, or trade, were recognised by the wider community and regulated by the craftsmen themselves. Acceptance as a master craftsman, an artisan, formalised readiness to create works of art-istry, ‘masterpieces’, to the glory of God.

Divinely granted practices and rituals survived and became modified over time as a continuous link was maintained between the old-timers, the newcomers and those members in transit between the extremes.

Professional communities perpetuated modes of knowing that required no explication since new members were socialised to distinctive practices and knowledge, acquiring a stock of expertise that they left as a legacy, with some modification, to their successors, perpetuating not only the community, but its stock of practical knowledge. Where the practice fell into disuse across generations, it became lost - sometimes irretrievably.

It is pathetic to watch the endless efforts - equipped with microscopy and chemistry, with mathematics and electronics - to reproduce a single violin of the kind the half-literate Stradivarius turned out as a matter of routine more than 200 years ago. (Polanyi, 1958, p. 53)

The industrial revolution changed the nature of work. For the population in general, and for crafts-people in particular, this change was dramatic. Machines demanded new operating skills, though not at craftsman level. Machines required factories and large buildings to house them. Assembly lines required a coordinated effort. The new ‘workers’ focused on limited aspects of the whole (Taylor, 1911).

Since the dawn of civilisation, people had been using tools. In an incredible reversal, the tools and machines were now using people within factories. The only production tasks given to people were the ones that machines could not perform. These tasks were analysed and broken down into subtasks and each subtask became a job. (Penn, 1995, p.11)

The expertise of the craftsman was unnecessary to the worker. Community responsibility and pride were no longer required. Perhaps most significantly, skills and techniques were no longer passed down from parent to child (Penn, 1995).

A century later, the impact of the computer on modern industrial workers has become equally dramatic. Once again, the nature of work has changed. During the industrial revolution, workers were given the roles that only machines could not perform. Now silicon based technology in the form of computers and intelligent robots is replacing the people running the machines. Workers now accept roles that machines and computers can not carry out.

Throughout this century of turmoil however, a glimmer of a past ideology has survived the generations. The ancient dedication of self and community towards glorification of a higher being still forms the basis for many contemporary definitions of profession. Simultaneously, it establishes the points of confusion between contemporary interpretations and their origins.

Dedication to the pursuit of excellence in the name of the deity was considered, for the professor, to be response to a divine calling, a dedication to life under terms dictated and supported by God. Dedication to the pursuit of excellence for the craftsman was, equally clearly, a community directed ambition. Current definitions of profession tend to claim reference to both expertise and divine access. Questioning medical judgement, for example, is a relatively recent phenomenon and remains a tongue-tying task among the less-confident and less informed.

Profession and the professional

Acceptance into a profession implies an initial demonstration of expertise and an intention to maintain that level in practice. It is accompanied by the right to charge fees commensurate with the recognised performance level. Demonstration of expertise prior to registration is generally defined as amateur performance and fee payment cannot be expected. However, as Kritzer (1999) points out:

… there is an important distinction to be made between the occupational category of "professional" and what might be described as an ideological commitment to "professionalism," referring to expectations of work performance. (Kritzer, 1999)

Where the artistry of the expert craftsman and the profession of the priest, lawyer, warrior or physician were dedicated to a single purpose, each displayed and was acknowledged for his expertise. Expertise has become the defining principle in establishing a profession. Where payment for expertise becomes linked with payment for profession-al performance, definition becomes problematic. The paid athlete is a professional but athletics is not a profession. Systems analysts command high salaries to display high levels of expertise as IT professionals and, again, do not constitute a profession.

An airline pilot would not be considered professional if he or she was not an expert at flying; similarly neither a teacher nor a statesman would be considered professional without the requisite knowledge of an expert in the field. Not all experts, though, are professional! (Fishbein, 2000, p.241)

Professionalism, in this context, would seem to be simply defined. As Maister observes:

… real professionalism has little, if anything, to do with which business you are in, what role within that business you perform, or how many degrees you have. Rather, it implies a pride in work, a commitment to quality, a dedication to the interests of the clients, and a sincere desire to help. (Maister, 1997, p. 17)

On the contrary, it is in this area that maximum confusion reigns. When we expect professionalism from our family physician, we implicitly demand expertise, 24/7 service, infallible diagnosis, accurate prescription, and patient confidentiality but we also seek compassion, ethical behaviour and dedication to task. As we leave our local supermarket, the definition of professionalism includes a complex blend of deliverables, many of which are beyond the control of the staff member: smiling service, short waiting times, accurate cash register operation and orderly packaging. In this context, however, as Friedson (1994) observes,

Common sense usage is expanded to emphasise those characteristics of an occupation that justify special standing and privilege: It becomes the profession's portrayal of profession. Its context is largely determined by the political and ceremonial needs of the profession, and is used primarily to advance and defend its position [as a result of which] its ideological character, particularly in those substantive areas where the professions internal politics and self interest is threatened, precludes its development into a systematic and consistent value. (Freidson, 1994, p.170)


The association of reward for prowess with paid activity generated a differentiation between professional and amateur performance levels. This was complicated by the association of high levels of performance with high levels of expertise in the caring professions (eg medicine) where, as Maister (1997) has argued, the opposite of a professional is a technician! The profession of the professional in these contexts does not necessarily require professionalism, as it was traditionally understood. The consequence of this complication of the conception of professionalism has led increasingly towards formalisation and quantification of performance. Attempts are now made to ensure minimum performance standards rather than to promote Maister’s (1997) pride in work, dedication to the interests of others, or even excellence in the performance of a professed specialisation.

Blending elements of traditional and contemporary acceptance of professional practice and the professions, Freidson (1994) proposes that:

Professionalism entails a commitment to a particular body of knowledge and skill both for its own sake and for those to which it is put, [a] commitment to preserve, refine and elaborate that knowledge and skill, to do good work, and where it has application to worldly problems, to perform it well for the benefit of others - to do Good Works. In order to do good work, one must have the nominal freedom to exercise discretionary judgement (Freidson,1994).

In emphasising personal commitment to doing good works in overcoming worldly problems for the benefit of others, Freidson’s (1994) definition retains and restores an emphasis on the altruistic origins of the traditional professions. Modern definition by legislation, as Kritzer (1999) has observed, however, is more concerned with retaining financial advantage by maintaining exclusivity.

In an increasingly profit-driven business climate, highly skilled operators seek income parity with perceived peers. In response, employers, government, institutional, corporate and private, seek to maintain service levels in the face of burgeoning costs. Income regulation forms one line in that cost-fixing strategy and it is the impact of the strategy on perceived definitions of professionalism that form the focus for this paper.

In pursuit of what it means to be fully professional, for the individual and for the firm, this paper explores the self-perceptions of a broad range of informants identified by their workplace colleagues as displaying professionalism. The paper applies these perceptions to establish an operational definition of professionalism, assesses its importance in determining reputational capital and proposes several advantages to its overt recognition in generating competitive advantage.


This paper reports the first stage of a two part study reviewing contemporary perceptions of professionalism in business practice in Australia. The study is seeking to identify factors contributing to the development of professionalism in the workplace and to determine its role in establishing organisational reputation.

Stage one data was derived from interview notes, whiteboard summaries, audio transcripts and participant notes developed during semi-structured focus groups. Participants were asked to articulate their understanding of professionalism, to suggest how they believed it was established and, to report their experience of its apparent value to organisations they had worked with.

Four initially planned focus groups each involved between seven and ten participants, were scheduled for one hour and typically lasted more than two hours. Participants were peer selected on the sole criterion of displaying high levels of professionalism by a team of middle level managers from four different industries who, themselves, had been identified on the basis of their demonstrated professionalism.

Following lively discussion in the initial focus groups about the origins of professionalism in the workplace, a fifth group, of ten senior high school students, was invited to respond to the same format as the adult groups.

Preliminary content analysis of focus group responses forms the basis for presentation of the findings reported in the following sections of this paper.

Necessary and sufficient conditions for professionalism

Few writers in the professionalism field escape the need to differentiate the apparently related terms: profession, professional and professionalism. As evolution has degenerated into confusion, self interest has created a definitional creep. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of informants to the study substantiating this paper were clear that there was a difference between the terms, that the difference was discernible in practice and that firms which failed to acknowledge and promote professionalism lost quality staff and clients as a consequence.

According to Schein (1972), a profession requires its members, inter alia, to:

➢ Undertake a long education process to gain skills – nowadays a tertiary education is the norm
➢ Adhere to a code or charter governing the activities of professionals
➢ Be licensed or registered through formal government recognition
➢ Qualify for membership of a professional body
➢ Accept fees in return for services

Focus group members generally saw this as a minimum, or sufficient, set of requirements for entry into a profession but felt it was unconstructive in recognising professionalism. Rejecting a minimally codified set of quantifiable competencies, informants displayed strong agreement that the necessary qualities determining professionalism included:

➢ contemporary expertise
➢ experiential knowledge
➢ personally defined ethics
➢ responsibility
➢ mutual respect with clients
➢ altruism, and
➢ developing professional identity.

Differentiating lengthy education and university qualification from developing professional identity, informants linked continuous learning with increasing experience to establish and maintain contemporary expertise:

Jake’s probably been one of the best in the business. He’s been in telecom since pedal radio I reckon. But he’s lost it; he hasn’t kept up. Maybe he can’t. Maybe he’s tired. I don’t know. But he has such a great way with clients that he gets away with it most of the time … and he’s so well known that clients ask for him and he can tell them he’ll send someone else and they accept that - because he’s Jake (Alonso – telecommunications consultant).

Denying that the receipt of a fee for service was either necessary or sufficient to describe professionalism, informants identified high levels of voluntary service as evidence of dedication to their task, of passion for their calling and, at times, of an altruism that described their feeling for the importance of their professional activity.

A profession is a vocation, an occupation; professionalism can be exhibited by anyone. If you’re an accountant, you’re a good accountant; if you’re a garbo (garbage collector), you’re a good garbo. You think about it. You care about it. And you’d probably still do it even if you weren’t paid (Madhu – Human Resources Manager).

The school student group, in particular, identified the difference between minimalist performance and professionalism by reference to particular teachers who spent unpaid time with them out of class, respected their aspirations and supported them when they felt inadequate to particular tasks. Favourably discussing a trainee teacher they had recently encountered, the students observed that they usually reserved their worst behaviour for trainees, “to test them”,

But Miss MM was really professional. She knew what we were doing straight away, and she accepted what were doing and made a joke. Then she led us onto the work she wanted us to do. She respected us and she treated us like adults. She will be amazing when she gets her own class. (Gina - student group participant)

While professional associations almost invariably publish a code of practice or ethics as an article of registration, public domain ethics were not seen as sufficient to identify professionalism. Instead, informants argued, personal commitment led to personal ethical stances. Personal integrity – usually the first identified characteristic of the ‘true’ professional within the four adult focus groups – required an integrated ethical stance based on experience, expertise, a highly developed awareness of social demands and an apparently over-arching comprehension of the balance between personal, company, social and client needs.

Resolving self-imposed hypothetical dilemmas, focus group participants, including the student group, established occasions where the best interest of the client superseded the interests of the company, where client interests were submerged beneath community interests and where company interests should be given preference over client wishes.

Wide ranging discussions inevitably force the resolution of finely differentiated issues and it could be expected that the difference between necessary and sufficient elements for professionalism should become apparent as the diversity in experience and expertise between individuals and groups across the study was explored. As this has not been the case, it is suggested that while a number of elements are necessary to establish and maintain professionalism, and several, including those previously identified (by Schein, 1972), are desirable, none is, in itself, sufficient.

Not surprisingly in the light of increasing public acceptance of high level qualification, nomination and registration, informants queried the necessity for professional autonomy. Instead, in agreement with Kritzer (1999) and Humphreys and Hyland (2002), they argued that increasing levels of regulation through competency assessment and outcome-based measurement, and governmental control through public funding continue to undermine professional autonomy in significant ways.

Both adult and student respondents were clear that passion for the professed field was important, the students were more certain that it was essential in displaying professionalism. Specifically identifying mutual respect between themselves as clients and their teachers as professionals, they entered a heated debate differentiating professional concern from personal friendship. Their consequential demand for professional distance was then extended to strong notions of commercial-in-confidence and client-professional confidentiality. The adult focus group respondents identifying similar notions were less emphatic in insisting on their necessity as defining elements.

Towards an operational definition

Content grouping of initially brainstormed and then examined elements of professionalism suggested that while a large list of desirable and necessary conditions define the professional, these could be summarised in four broad fields:

Personal integrity
Established personal ethics and values
Accept organisational responsibility at a personal level
Dedication and application to task at hand
Exemplary presentation, manner and conduct/behaviour
Personal confidence
Personal conduct on task

Passion for the field
Innovation/development of body of knowledge

Knowledge derived from/polished with experience
Competence to excellent standard (quality of work)
Exemplary performance
Completeness of task
Organised, systematic approach to tasks

Ability to separate “the personal” from “the professional” (although within the personal ethic)
Mutual respect with client
maintaining professional distance
Developing professional identity
Preparedness to perform beyond personal limits

These four fields were then synthesised to generate the operational definition for professionalism from which further analysis has been undertaken.

Professionalism, in this study, is a passionate commitment to excellent performance in a chosen field requiring the application of high levels of expertise and personal integrity in the immediate interest of clients and the professional community though constrained by the greater interest of society.

The second stage of this study will provide respondents with individual opportunity to refine the operational definition in the context of their experience as professionals and as organisational representatives.

Learning professionalism

Ultimately, the broad identification of elements necessary to professionalism is unified through a single lens. Adult and student focus groups alike maintain that professionalism is a personal characteristic. They observe that it is variously displayed among their colleagues and acquaintances, that it is sometimes evident in individual practice and sometimes absent for the same person, and that its exercise is frequently the defining difference between winning and losing a prospective client.

Respondents provided a range of perspectives on how professionalism is learned. Most immediately agreed, with Taylor (2002), that it is learned ‘on the job’ from admired colleagues and as a result of striving for acceptance within expert communities of practice. Greater reflection in the adult focus groups, however, revealed support for the student group identification of home experience and parent modelling as the probable basis for later identification and acceptance of the agreed elements of professionalism.

Students narrated instances of parents displaying selfless dedication to their clients in business or of attending courses when they were already comfortably recognised as expert in their field. Consistent with their greater experience, adult respondents offered less home and parent focused stories while referring to significant role models during their education or in their early working experience.

Negative examples emerging from a number of narratives among both students and adults, males and females, suggested that learning was not a simple matter of instruction or modelling. Many respondents related instances where their emerging personal views ran counter to family or organisational expectation. Passion for a chosen field was cited as a source of family friction for some and as sufficient reason to leave an organisation for others.

I realised quite quickly that the level of service I was willing to provide for clients was beyond company expectations … but what they were offering was losing them customers. They had a great product but they were blowing it away … I couldn’t work in that environment so I left. (Jana – experienced production manager)

Professionalism and the organisation

The most consistently offered and discussed mark of professionalism in every group was the maintenance of personal integrity. Common reference to personal reputation within the organisation, within the industry, among peers, colleagues and family consistently suggested that respondents would leave rather than compromise their reputation.

Supporting their position as professionals, adult respondents argued that organisations commonly paid lip-service to professionalism without providing any support for its development. Students, in effective support but from limited experience, suggested that mere formal qualification and registration did not ensure professional performance among their teachers. Differentiating professional development training and seminars from conference presentations, the professionals in this study suggested that organisational expenditure to maintain expertise generally did little to foster professionalism. Constrained budgets, reduced customer service, limited response to client feedback and unwillingness to accept mutual responsibility with clients for successful business outcomes, on the other hand, were each identified as limiting the capacity for professionalism within the organisation.


On the basis of preliminary data from a two stage Australian business study, this paper has presented contemporary conceptions of professionalism through a historical development and related these to the currently held values and perceptions of working professionals across several industries. It has observed that while professionalism exercised becomes reputational capital delivered, few organisations work consciously to support or increase this linkage and some actively, though probably unconsciously, subvert it.

On the basis of four commonly identified features, personal integrity, passion for the field, expertise and autonomous responsibility, the paper proposes an operational definition for professionalism as: a passionate commitment to excellent performance in a chosen field requiring the application of high levels of expertise and personal integrity in the immediate interest of clients and the professional community though constrained by the greater interest of society.

Acknowledging the importance of early modelling and training in identifying the complex of elements involved in developing professionalism, the paper suggests that:


  • there is some emerging evidence that personal traits may influence this development;
  • it is already well established in senior school students;
  • it provides a set of identifiable behaviour by which some professionals determine their association with their employing organisation; and, by which preferred client organisations determine the quality of their business associations.

Customers, stakeholders, suppliers and the general population perceive individual professionalism as a mark of organisational professionalism. This paper argues that each individual’s professional reputation within an organisation forms the basis of a collective reputation, sometimes theorised as reputation capital. When this argument is accepted, individual professionalism becomes an essential feature in the strategic landscape. Perceptions of individual professionalism directly generate the positive or negative reactions to an organisation commonly identified as competitive advantage.

It is widely recognised from market research that consumers will change their buying behaviour based upon their perceptions and expectations of the level of service they receive in dealing with individual employees. Organisations neglecting this reality lose quality staff and then they lose market share.

Client perceptions of professionalism at an individual level directly impact the reputation capital and, ultimately, the strategic advantage of an organisation. The professionals responding to this study recognise their personal responsibility in maintaining the reputation of their organisation. It seems reasonable to assume that increased organisational consciousness of this professionalism could be leveraged to mutual advantage.


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