June 18, 2013, by ICCSR
Is Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability Practice an Emerging Profession?
I recently moved to the UK after writing my PhD dissertation on the topic of professional ethics (at the University of Toronto). Upon arriving at ICCSR, I was interested to learn that several organizations in the UK (e.g. GACSO and CRG) are considering establishing professional bodies (or institutes) for Corporate Responsibility (CR) and Sustainability practitioners. What could my work on professional ethics bring to this discussion? The first fundamental hurdle to be faced by proponents of professionalization will be to demonstrate that CR and Sustainability practice is worthy of the title “profession.” When we call someone a “professional,” we imply that she is a qualified expert who may be trusted with important matters. Conversely, the label “unprofessional” implies incompetent, even undignified behavior. But although the title “professional” is a weighty, evaluative signifier, there is a fair bit of ambiguity and disagreement over what a “profession” consists of in the first place.
Tracing its origins back to the 13th century, the term “profession” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as a “declaration, promise or vow made by one entering a religious order,” or “the action of entering such an order.” By the 16th century, the franchise was extended beyond the religious sphere, and the verb “profess” was taken to mean “to declare oneself expert or proficient (in some art or science).” Later on, a profession came to be known as “the occupation which one professes to be skilled in and to follow.” The professionalization movement grew exponentially during the twentieth century, but despite this growth, widespread disagreements persist over the modern definition of “profession.” Specialized technical knowledge, power, autonomy, and educational pre-requisites are some prominent candidates for essential attributes. However, while each of these characteristics explains some set of professional activities well, they have been shown to fall short of explaining other typical professional features and behaviors. A dispute over the nature of professional morality lingers in the background of these definitional debates. While some argue that professions are a locus of morality and altruistic service orientation, others insist that professions constitute a more cynical attempt to rig the market and create cartels that will benefit members of professional associations.
In my research, I propose a minimalist definition of “profession” that is based on the concept of information asymmetries. Consider the patient-physician relationship, for example. The complex nature of medical service tends to prevent the patient from adequately evaluating due diligence and the quality of the care she receives. Due to information asymmetries, the patient may struggle to evaluate the physician’s training and experience, as well as the physician’s incentives to recommend and provide accurate diagnosis and treatment. Patients’ distrust of professional medical services and prospective doctors’ misgivings about professional medical standards can both lead to inefficiencies arising from lost transactions. Thus, in essence, professions are institutional mechanisms that arise in response to a deficit of trust, which is caused by information asymmetries, in the market for professional services. Professional institutional mechanisms, such as educational certification, ethics standards, peer assessment, and complaint investigation, all facilitate the creation of an environment of trust among professionals and their clients. Distinctively, in addition to incentive-based and regulatory responses to information asymmetries, professional associations draw on trust-creating norms, e.g. the ethos of service orientation and codes of ethics.
Is CR and Sustainability practice an emerging profession? According to my approach, the answer is “yes,” since practitioners’ work in NGOs, think-tanks, corporations, and governments is subject to information asymmetries. Despite the broad consensus on the importance of the sustainability agenda in corporate practice and public policy, the information problems surrounding the work of CR practitioners, to some extent, preclude proper evaluation of their expertise, their due diligence, and their relevance. Thus, practitioners may struggle to convince decision-makers in charge of implementing corporate responsibility initiatives to trust their services and to value their advice. The lack of trust surrounding the work of practitioners may in turn dissuade prospective candidates from joining the field. Establishing professional institutions for CR and Sustainability practitioners can be socially beneficial, at minimum, since responding to the prevailing deficit of trust is (Pareto) efficiency improving. The question that needs to be answered by proponents of CR and Sustainability professionalization is as follows: given the nature and purpose of their practice, which of the typical professional institutional mechanisms should be drawn upon, and how, in the process of professionalization? Sample mechanisms include institutional qualifications (educational pre-requisites and experiential requirements in the process of certification and licensing), institutional evaluation (peer-assessment, complaint investigation, and exclusion), and regulations (entry and competition rules, service standards, and ethics codes).
By Sareh Pouryousefi, Research Associate at the ICCSR, Nottingham University Business School
 OED, s. v. “profession”
Image by Mihail Gikov source: http://vector.me/browse/766132/warning_professionals_only.
Post Script: The Institute for Corporate Social Responsibility (ICRS) has now been established. For further information visit www.icrs.info
This is helpful, and a great starting point for discussion. But doesn’t the concept of information asymmetry, as applied here, require an established body of theoretical and practical knowledge? That’s certainly present in the standard professions, such as law and medicine and engineering. I don’t see that in CSR — at least, no more than I see it in other managerial or consulting roles.
Thanks Chris! That’s a great question. I’ll address it in two parts.
First, I’ll discuss your question about the relevance of information asymmetries in this debate. An established body of theoretical/practical knowledge is not an essential requirement for an information asymmetry. Instead, many argue that a body of knowledge is a fundamental trait of professions. That claim is disputed, however, and there is widespread disagreement over the essential features that constitute a profession.
I couldn’t go into much detail in the blog, but my background view about professions is that they are institutional responses to market failures that arise, due to information asymmetries, in the market for professional services. Information asymmetries, in this context, may take the form of problems of incentives (moral hazard), or problems of selection (adverse selection). My point in the blog about information asymmetries is a specific application of my broader view to the work of CR practitioners. In the absence of effective institutional mechanisms, information asymmetries pose a marginal loss of (Pareto-) efficiency in the market for professional services. One virtue of this minimalist approach is that it allows me to stay agnostic regarding the contentious debates about the normative connotations of professionalization. Crucially, though, the minimalist stance still involves some socially beneficial outcomes.
For CR and sustainability practitioners, information problems may preclude proper evaluation of their expertise, their due diligence, and their relevance, by those in charge of implementing corporate responsibility initiatives in corporations, NGOs, governments, etc. Practitioners may be able to draw on professional institutional structures (e.g. standardized education, peer assessment, and community-building) in a reconstructive effort to more effectively determine and communicate their work and their identity.
Second, I’ll note the relation between CR and other managerial or consulting roles. As you mention, information asymmetries arise in other managerial and consulting roles as well. In fact, many practitioners in these roles have already formed professionalized bodies and institutions. Some UK-specific examples include the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), Institute of Directors (IOD), Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS), Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), and the Chartered Institute of Management Consultants (CIMC). Consultants are one of the most high-profile recent groups to professionalize. The professionalization movement has grown exponentially since early in the twentieth century. The question for the Global Association for Corporate Sustainability Officers (GACSO), and the Corporate Responsibility Group (CRG), who are currently considering professionalization in the UK, is whether professional institutional trappings can be appropriately drawn upon so as to benefit current and future generations of CR and sustainability practitioners, and further, to serve the purpose of corporate responsibility and sustainability, broadly construed.
There is ECOA: http://www.theecoa.org – since SOX, and even before, the US has had a developing field of ethics officers which frequently are involved in CSR/Sustainability initiatives