Professionalism as reputation capital: Building strategic advantage


Jill de Araugo and Richard Beal



Organisations typically leverage professionalism to promote reputational capital. Reporting on the origins, role and implications of professionalism as a strategic driver, this paper describes a recent Australian study into aspects of a trait driven ideology supported through individual relationships. Rather than being tangible and teachable, the paper argues that professionalism may be passed between generations of workers from childhood and independently of organisational demand or culture. The paper emphasizes the impact that an individual’s pursuit of professionalism has upon the reputation capital, and ultimately on the strategic advantage, of an organisation.


Key Words: Relationship Capital, Strategic Advantage, Professionalism, Reputational Capital, Reputation, Professional Development




Brief CV of authors



Professor Jillian de Araugo is an education professional with broad experience in school leadership and change implementation.


Dr Richard Beal consults to clients on change management and organization effectiveness. A lawyer with extensive corporate experience, his doctoral research examined professionalism and its role in developing and leveraging reputational capital.


 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 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 rejects tradional assumptions 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. This paper 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.