In an earlier blog post about e-learning professionals, I took a very traditional view of what it means to be a professional, influenced by my experience as a “traditional professional”, i.e. a Chartered Accountant. I concluded that the label was not very helpful for e-learning types and suggested “missionaries from the future” as an extreme, but inspiring alternative.
But maybe there is a simpler way to think about professionals, with perhaps more application to e-learning. I had a conversation recently with my daughter’s ballet teacher. My daughter recently tried out a “pointe” class to see how it went. Following this, the teacher called to say that, on reflection, she thinks my daughter is not ready for pointe work. She needs to develop a bit more and try again later. I completely accept her view, as she knows much more about this than I do.
Subsequently, I was discussing this with my wife and found myself using the phrase “her professional opinion”. Later on, I had to think about this. I know that my daughter’s ballet teacher is highly experienced and runs a well-regarded dance school, affiliated to the Royal Academy of Dance. But I am not too sure if she holds a specific qualification, belongs to a body that regulates her or has a formal CPD commitment. I still regard her as a professional, though. This is something to do with professional behaviour, which is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. The teacher in question always deals professionally with me, other parents, and her pupils.
But it is also the fact that she is giving advice that will, in the short term, leave her worse off. The pointe lessons are not cheap, and she is turning down the chance for some extra revenue. There is of course also an element of enlightened self-interest. If my daughter progresses at the right pace and enjoys her experience overall, we are more likely to stay with her school. By giving good advice, she is earning our trust. That is what professionalism is about.
To understand what is not professionalism, consider Independent Financial Advisers (IFAs). I will say the outset that I have nothing personal against IFAs – quite genuinely, I have a good friend who is an IFA. But I have always been uneasy about the designation they use. Most IFAs are paid by receiving commissions from the companies whose products they recommend, or rather sell. This means they are “independent advisers” in much the same way as a sales rep in Carphone Warehouse.
I have nothing against sales reps in Carphone Warehouse either. If you want a mobile phone, they have a wide range of phones and price plans they can offer. They can tell you about the capabilities of the different phones and how the price plans work. They might help you decide which phone and plan is best for you. They may even have access to special deals that the networks are offering, and save you some money. But you should definitely be aware that they will steer you if they can to the more expensive phones and accessories, which carry higher margins. And they are extermely unlikely to tell you that actually your old phone is fine.
This parallels my experience with IFAs exactly. They have sometimes got me good mortgage deals, for which I am grateful. But I always need to insist that I do not need any more life insurance or long-term investment plans, thank you very much. Of course, some IFAs work on a fee basis, and pass any commission they receive back to their clients. They will give genuinely unbiased advice. They are also usually more highly qualified and more expensive. But then professionalism rarely comes cheap.
So perhaps the essence of professionalism is this willingness to advise in the best interests of the client (internal or external), even if it runs counter to your own short-term interests, even if it is not what they want to hear. This must involve a level of technical competence, or no one would want your advice in the first place. It means taking ethics into account, and it also means that in some way you are trying to be a positive social force – society is your client too, if you like.
This is not to say that every doctor, lawyer or accountant always behaves this way. But it should be their aspiration, and others are entitled to judge them against this standard.
So does this understanding help us judge what it means to be an “e-learning professional”? That will be the topic of a future post.