Professions In Organizations Research Paper

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The study of professions in organizations is about the intersection of two areas of enquiry that have quite distinct histories, namely, the study of professions and the study of organizations, but that converge over the course of those histories. There have been times when they have been related strongly and other times when they have gone their distinct ways. In fact, the study of professions in organizations has gone through three, overlapping, phases since the mid-twentieth century. The first phase, started in the 1950s and particularly strong in the 1960s, and still apparent today, was that of a critical examination of the role of professionals in bureaucratic organizations. The second phase, begun in the 1970s and again, continuing until today, critically examined the orthodox view of professionals and gave a more power-based, labor market analysis of their position and how it affected organizational labor markets. The third phase, which has its origins in the 1960s and 1970s, and blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s, emphasized the dynamic nature of professionals in organizations and acknowledged the variety of organizational locations. This research paper outlines these phases, dealing with the central concepts and findings, examining the questions that each one raises, and pointing the way to the next phase of research in this rich field.

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1. Professionals And Bureaucracy—1950s Onwards

The origins of the initial discussion of the relationship between professionals and organizations lies in the sociology of the professions and the discussions of defining characteristics of a profession. There are a number of contributions, but one that is often seen as central is that of Greenwood (1957) who suggested that professions have: a basis in systematic theory; prolonged training and certification; recognized authority; community sanction and legitimation; professional culture and codes of ethics. In essence, he came up with a set of traits or components that, when present in their entirety, defined the complete profession. This trait approach was echoed in a variety of ways by Wilensky (1964) and Hickson and Thomas (1969). There were two thrusts to these discussions. The first was to establish the characteristics that make up a profession. The second was to determine empirically which occupations were ‘truly’ professional and which were ‘partly’ professional and which ‘aspired’ to the status of a profession.

Out of these discussions came a relatively agreed upon set of characteristics of a profession that had structural and value aspects. The structural aspects were such things as a full-time occupation, a training and certification system, a professional association, and an ethical code. But, more importantly for the study of professionals and organizations, was the extension of Greenwood’s notion of a professional culture into a set of values which encompassed peer reference, vocation, public service, self-regulation, and autonomy. When this work in the sociology of the professions connected with the sociology of organizations it was in terms of the relationship between the values held by professionals and those promulgated by the modern, bureaucratic organization. This relationship was seen primarily as antagonistic (cf. Hall 1968). Through the 1950s and 1960s the great influence on the sociological study of organizations was Weber (1949). Weber’s principal contribution to this field was his characterization of organizations in terms of the authority relations within them (systems of imperative coordination) and the ways in which such systems had evolved historically. Each ideal type of authority, charismatic, traditional, and rational–legal, had its associated organizational form. Weber saw the rational–legal authority system with its organizational form of bureaucracy as the dominant institution of modern society. The authority system is rational because means are designed expressly to achieve certain goals and it is legal because authority is exercised through an office with its associated rules and procedures. For Weber the bureaucratic organization was technically the most efficient form of organization possible.

In terms of Weber’s evolutionary history of social systems, bureaucracies represent the final stage in depersonalization. Offices (jobs) are held by experts who are arranged in a hierarchy. Rules and procedures provide predictability and consistency. Information is recorded and stored. Personal and business affairs are separated. There is ‘the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of means.’ Starting in the economic sphere, bureaucracy is such a potent method of organizing that it becomes characteristic of all areas of society such as education, government, politics, religion, and so on. Much of organizational analysis of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was essentially concerned with establishing, extending, and critiquing Weber’s notion of bureaucracy (e.g., Pugh et al. 1969)

As Abbott (1988) in his influential work has pointed out, this 1950s and 1960s view of professions had an underlying assumption of professionalization as a natural process; that is, a regular sequence by which an occupation moved to ‘full’ professionalism (Wilensky 1964). Essentially, this view, together with ‘the search for bureaucracy’ produced a unitary view of both professional occupations and organizations. Professionals, it was suggested, were socialized into occupations where the key values were autonomy, peer control, and vocation. For example, Hall (1968) operationalized professional values as the professional organization as a reference, a belief in service to the public, a belief in self-regulation, a sense of calling to the field, and feelings of autonomy. Bureaucracy was operationalized as hierarchy of authority, division of labor, rules, procedures, impersonality, and technical competence. However, his conclusion was ‘an assumption of inherent conflict between the professional or the professional group and the employing organization appears to be unwarranted.’

Of course, both sides of this coin, the professional and the organization, could be, and were opened up to scrutiny. On the organizational side of the coin, Scott (1965) had put forward the notion of Autonomous and Heteronomous Professional Organizations. Pugh et al. (1969) distinguished between Full Bureaucracies, Workflow Bureaucracies, and Personnel Bureaucracies as well as Implicitly Structured organizations. The point of these taxonomies and typologies was to open up the possibility of there being organizational forms in which the values espoused by individual professionals would be embraced and protected, thus potentially transforming the nature of the debate beyond an inherent conflict.

On the other side of the coin, the changing nature of professions was being stressed together with their organizational locations. Two issues are important. First, there was a trend of increasing professionalism within bureaucratic organizations. Occupations were arising that claimed professional status, such as social workers, nurses, and managers. These were bureaucratically produced and located occupations. Second, Hastings and Hinings (1970) suggested, from their work on chartered accountants, that there were established professions that carried out tasks that were centrally located in bureaucratic organizations and that, as a result, there was little or no conflict between professional and bureaucratic values in these situations.

This ‘opening up’ of both organization and profession led to new developments in understanding professionals in organizations. However, this theme of potential conflict between certain forms of organization and professionalism continues today. For example Raelin (1991) has examined the management of professionals in organizational contexts, writing about ‘the clash of cultures’ when generic managers are responsible for professionals. In the UK, and Europe more generally, there has been a concern with ‘The New Public Management’ and its organizational impact on professionals employed in healthcare, government at all levels, and education. The concern or thrust is still that there are incompatibilities between professional ways of working and values and certain kinds of organizational principles and practices. It continues to be a fruitful area of study.

2. Professionals In The Labor Market—1970s Onward

The second phase, begun in the 1970s and again, continuing until today, critically examined the orthodox view of professionals and gave a more power-based, labor market analysis of their position and how it affected organizational labor markets. The basis for this was laid down in critiques of the ‘professionals in organizations’ approach in the previous decades. The previous research questions had been anchored firmly in issues about the structure and values of professionalism with notions of an underlying process of professionalization arising from the nature of work in modern economies.

The problems that were raised continued the opening up of professional occupations away from a homogeneous view of them. The uneven nature of professionals was stressed; that is, they could not and should not be considered as a unitary set of occupations. Similarly, the rise of the bureaucratic, organizationally based professions both in the context of the state and the private sector was recognized more fully. Abbott (1988) calls this the ‘monopoly school’ which attributes developments in professionalization ‘to a desire for dominance or authority’ (p. 15). The occupational professional project is to control the conditions of work (the labor process and the labor market) and to increase and maintain occupational status and power (Johnson 1972, Larson 1977, Friedson 1986).

The issues raised by this approach ‘dislocate’ the relationship between professionals and organizations both because it makes our understanding of professional occupations more complex, and also because it shifts the locus of debate away from values and structure to power and control. Indeed, the connection of this critique of the functions of professions is not as strongly related to the theme of professionals in organizations as the theories being critiqued. The emphasis becomes recentered on the nature of a profession and the professional project. In particular, the claim to professional status by an occupational group, for example, social workers, is seen as a way to control entry to the occupation and the demand for membership, and to establish an authoritative position within the labor market.

In a sense, the connection to organizations is primarily through an analysis of the rise of new professions and a continuation of the theme of ‘the professionalization of everyone’ (Wilensky 1964). Because a key question to be answered is why new occupations make the claim to be professional, that is, the professional project, the examination is, in part, one of organizationally based occupations. Thus, the issue of professionals in organizations is not one of ‘traditional,’ autonomous professionals coming to terms with the rise of the bureaucratic organization, but the establishment of functionally and bureaucratically derived new occupations as professional. The issue for the new professional in this organizational setting is to acquire authority and control the conditions of their occupation’s existence.

Thus, the professional/organizational relationship is not one of adaptation between two different sets of structure and values, but of an occupational group that is functionally defined and organizationally embedded acquiring the legitimacy and dominance that comes from professional status. The professional/organizational relationship is one of power plays, control of the labor process and fights over legitimacy that are played out both in the organizational setting and the institutional regulatory setting within a particular society. This approach continues to be part of the discussion of professions in organizations and is to be particularly found in discussions of the healthcare sector (Friedson 1986, Larson 1977) and of the new public management. One of the issues that is raised by this stream of theorizing is that of the ‘semiprofessions.’ This was an attempt to distinguish between fully professionalized occupations and other occupations that aspired to professional status. These latter occupations tend to be primarily those that are organizationally produced and located and where the individual occupation members do not work as independent practitioners. Johnson (1972) sees this distinction (and the use of other descriptors such as ‘quasi,’ ‘marginal,’ or ‘limited’ professions) as an illustration of power relations between occupational groups. For him, professions retain positions of authority vis-a-vis the semiprofessions, whose claim to professional status is contested. As he puts it, ‘the pervasiveness of the ideology (of professionalism) is not indicative of the extent of professionalism (p. 59). The theoretical and research issue of competition between groups for professional status continues to be an important topic. Several writers have observed the phenomenon of stratification within the professions. Abbott (1988) observes that interprofessional competition is a fundamental fact of professional life with jurisdictional disputes between occupational groups over claims to particular expertise and knowledge bases. And with more and more occupational groups that lay claim to such expertise and knowledge being strongly based in organizations, then the dynamic between professionals and organizations changes, on both sides.

3. Professionals In Professional Organizations— The 1980s Onwards

The third phase, which has its origins in the 1960s and 1970s, and blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s, emphasized the dynamic nature of professionals in organizations and acknowledged the variety of both professional and organizational locations. The issues of the variety in professional settings had been increasingly raised and, at the level of the professional system, Abbott (1988) has pointed out that there is continuous competition and jurisdictional disputes between professional groups as they dispute claims to expertise. Similarly, on the organizational side, the typologies and taxonomies of organizations both differentiated between types of bureaucracy and introduced new organizational forms.

This discussion has emerged in two different forms. The first is setting the discussion within the changes occurring in national and international economies. As thinking about ‘the new economy’ and ‘globalization’ has developed (Aharoni and Nachum 2000), so two issues have been emphasized which bring together much of the previous theorizing about professions. On the one hand there is the rise of new occupations which claim professional status. For example, in the software development industry there are computer engineers, software engineers, and systems analysts who are highly educated but operate in paraprofessional environments across boundaries of time and space. Financial services have grown rapidly, as has the whole sector of business services, and along with this have come investment analysts, financial planners, and mergers and acquisitions specialists whose professional status is unclear although one sees the same processes as were written about in the 1960s and 1970s, namely those of educational qualifications, professional associations, examinations, and designations and the ideological claim to professional status.

On the other hand there is the rise of the ‘knowledge based organization’ (Alvesson 1995) together with the development of concepts such as the flexible organization and the learning organization. The suggestion is that organizations of the new economy are increasingly different from the various kinds of bureaucracy of the old economy. One of the reasons for this is that they are more service-based and that those services require highly educated employees who, in value terms, are much more like the ‘old’ professions, being committed to autonomy, vocation, and collegiality. These new organizational forms are seen as much more friendly and hospitable to professionals. Also, it is suggested that these forms are spreading into old economy organizations as they respond to the rigors of global competition.

The second form of the discussion is a renewed interest in the professional service firm, for two different reasons, each connected to new organizations and new occupations. Peters (1992) and Alvesson (1995) have suggested that the professional service firm is an example of the flexible, knowledge-based organization; that there is a wealth of experience in these organizations from which the newly developing knowledge-based firms can learn. But, at the same time, with the explosion of knowledge-based services, and, in particular, the tremendous expansion of business services in OECD economies, there is much more competition over professional jurisdictions. If one takes the example of the ‘Big 5’ accounting firms (formerly the Big 8 and the Big 10), there has been a continuous expansion of services within these firms and more and more integration across services and across nations (Greenwood et al. 1998).

The same processes are at work within other professional jurisdictions and professional service firms. In law, for example, there are strong internationalization pressures. Also, there is much discussion over the multidisciplinary practice, allowing non- lawyers to have a controlling interest in law firms. In 2000, the Law Society of New South Wales (calling itself ‘the most progressive legal jurisdiction in the world’) voted to allow multidisciplinary practices in law firms and also to allow them to incorporate.

Part of the process of defining these issues and also a result of them being articulated has been a rise in interest in the professional service firm (PSF). There were classic studies by Smigel (1964) and Montagna (1968) that examined the ways in which professionals operated in the professional service firm. But because of the concerns of theorists with issues of the rise of the bureaucratic organizational form and the response of professionals to that, and the concern with the monopoly critique, there was little or no interest in studying the professional service firm per se, even though it was the implicit, professionally hospitable setting contrasted with the bureaucratic form. It is this which has become the focus of much interest and research in the past two decades and in its own way it reflects issues of professionalization and bureaucratization, although the latter has been recast as managerialism and located in the context of knowledge-based organizations and globalization.

The theoretical and empirical location of studies of professional organization has been, primarily, in either the professional association and system or nonprofessional organizations. Very little study had been done of professionals in professional organizations, organizations that can be described as PSF. One important dimension in understanding professions in organizations is the extent to which they are primarily located in professionally dominated organizations or in other kinds of organizations, the so-called bureaucratic professions. For example, practicing lawyers are employed primarily in law firms that are organized as professional partnerships; only a small proportion are employed outside legal practices; for example, as corporate counsel or as lawyers within the public defender justice system. Accountants tend to be split about 50/50 between private practice and employment in private and public sector organizations. However, almost all accountants are trained in private practice. Engineers are employed overwhelmingly in private and public sector organizations with only a small proportion of the profession being employed in engineering consulting firms. And engineers receive their postuniversity professional certification training in a wide variety of settings.

There are three points to be taken from this. First, professionals work in a variety of organizational settings, something that has been ignored in much previous work. Second, there are some professionals who primarily work in bureaucratic settings and experience little or no conflict. Hastings and Hinings (1970) showed that chartered accountants working in industrial settings experienced little role conflict and they argued that part of the activity of accountants is to bureaucratize others. Similarly, the debate over the semiprofessionals such as social workers, teachers, and nurses centered around the fact that they were located entirely in bureaucratic organizations and did not have independent, autonomous practices. But, third, the arena of professional work that had been ignored in particular was that of the professional service firm in spite of the fact that implicit in many analyses of professionals, their location in independent professional/organizational settings was considered to be very important as the archetypal setting for an autonomous professional practitioner.

Much of the work of the 1980s and 1990s has been concerned with understanding the nature of the professionally based, private practice organization (Nelson 1988, Brock et al. 1999). As this work developed it also embraced the theme of bureaucratization although in a different guise, as managerialism.

This initial work was concerned with elaborating the nature of the traditional professional service firm, which Greenwood et al. (1990) typified as the P2 form. The P2 alism and partnership. The PSF is an organization whose core workers are professionals. Traditionally they are from one dominant profession such as accounting or law. And the governance system of the organization is a partnership where the senior members of the professional group jointly and severally take responsibility for the direction of the firm.

There are a number of organizational consequences to these twin defining features. In human resource terms, one is the ‘up or out’ system or tournament. Young professionals either make it to partner or leave the firm. Organizationally, they are relatively loose structures, representative and collective decision-making with management being something that is done after dealing with clients. Issues of management and methods of organizing are not issues that are seen as important to discuss in the P2 firm. The emphasis is on the individual professional and their ability to do good professional work. There are clearly strong echoes in this of the kinds of discussions that have arisen in the 1980s and 1990s about the knowledge-based firm with its employment of highly qualified individuals who are applying new, and sometimes esoteric knowledge, and, it is suggested, require freedom and flexibility to achieve results. In the P organization, interesting work and the freedom and flexibility to do it are prized.

However, the nature of the professional firm has been changing due to changes in the institutional and market contexts of professional work. Because of the development of the new economy and the rise of services generally and business services in particular, there have been increasing pressures on the established professions such as law, accounting, and medicine. For more than a decade now, Western economies have been in a period of deregulation with the ideology of the market being dominant. Thus, jurisdictional boundaries have blurred and the level of inter-professional competition has increased. The rapid rise in the numbers of management consultants, financial services advisors, software development engineers, information technology consultants, media and marketing occupations, etc. has changed the dynamics of professional organizations. Similarly, there have been substantial changes in markets. On the one hand the demand for these professional business services has increased markedly, making it one of the most rapidly growing sectors in many economies. But the demands for these services are from increasingly sophisticated clients, operating on a global scale.

It has been suggested that a major consequence o f these pressures and changes is that the professional, P organizational form is in decline (Brock et al. 1999), and that it is being replaced by forms that place a greater emphasis on managerialism (Cooper et al. 1996). Cooper et al. (1996) named this new organizational form in professional firms the Managed Professional Business (MPB). In such an organization stands for the two key elements of profession- professionalism becomes centered on developing lines of business, hierarchies develop, strategic planning is introduced, targets are more binding, and decision-making rests in the hands of management teams rather

 than the partnership at large. So, the argument goes, the terms and conditions of work in the MPB move towards those of the regular corporation. However, this can only go so far because of the knowledge-based work of professionals (Rose and Hinings 1999).

What this suggests is convergence for professionals in organizations, but of a new kind. It is not convergence around either professionalism or managerialism (bureaucratization), per se, but around a combination of these which is organized around the increasing role of knowledge in ‘postindustrial,’ service-based organizations. As yet, we have not sufficiently tracked these kinds of developments to write authoritatively about them.

4. Conclusion

So what can we conclude about research in this rich field and the status of our current understanding? There are a number of things. A very important one is the continuing theme of the potential conflict between professionalism and bureaucratization and/or managerialism. That is, the notion of a professional encompasses values and cultural statements that are inimical to the forms and cultures of hierarchically organized, profit-driven corporations. However, this continuing theme has been modified in two important ways, both of which require much more study.

The first is the opening up of the idea of the professional. There is still a tendency to work with ideas of ‘true,’ ‘full,’ or ‘traditional’ professions that are seen as archetypal or at least worked with as ideal types. But, much of the original work on the professional–bureacratic relationship, and, in particular, the ideas of the monopoly school, suggested that there are a range of professions exhibiting varying degrees of compatibility with bureaucratic working. More research is needed which starts from the diversity between professionals, rather than the assumption of homogeneity. There are still incompatibilities between some professional ways of working and their associated values and some organizational principles and practices. But whether those professions that have evolved from bureaucratic organizations have more compatibility with those forms is still very much an open question, and it needs to be connected to issues of claims to professional status and competition between occupational groups for professional status.

The issue that Abbott (1988) sees as central, namely, interprofessional competition and jurisdictional disputes between occupational groups, should be related to the types of organizations within and between which such competition and disputes take place. The healthcare setting is a particularly good one for examining these kinds of issues because of the numbers of professional groups involved.

A second modification to the professional–bureaucratic opposition thesis lies in the variety of organizational settings and their changing nature. While the death of bureaucracy is much over-stated, there is no doubt that new organizational forms are emerging that emphasize knowledge acquisition, use, and dissemination, together with flexibility and autonomy in organizational working. We might argue that the organic, flexible design is the ‘new’ organizational form. But there is a range of established and emerging forms within which there are differing responses to expertise and professionalism.

A further development of these themes comes from our increased understanding of the role and nature of the professional service firm. Within the 1990s more and more interest and research has been centered on, inter alia, accounting firms, law firms, management consulting firms, and engineering consulting firms. These are, of course, the archetypal sites for the study of professionals within settings which should be the most accommodating because they are organized around professional work and managed by the professionals themselves. But they are also operating in changing institutional and market environments and face intra and interprofessional competition. More research needs to be done on the way in which these professional fields are being restructured, new occupational grouping emerging, new organizational forms developing, and the organizational–professional relationship being changed. Part of this is also that there are important differences within as well as between professionals in terms of organizational setting.

Finally, an important and intriguing topic to be examined is the possible convergence of professionals in organizations and organizations of professionals. That is, on the one hand, many ‘nonprofessional’ organizations are becoming more knowledge-based and are experimenting with more flexible and autonomy-based organizational forms. On the other hand, professional organizations are moving into new markets, facing more competition, changing their knowledge base, and growing in size. In doing this they are becoming more managed, more strategic, and possibly decreasing some aspects of autonomy and flexibility. What they can offer is challenging work with major clients. This suggests a new kind of convergence, combining professionalism and managerialism (bureaucratization), due to the increasing role of knowledge in ‘postindustrial,’ service-based new economies. These changes present a real challenge for research.


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