Thursday, July 21, 2016

Reimagine Professional Education

The conversation about Education Innovation should go beyond Education Technology, and try to address fundamental questions: Do we need schools? What should the teachers' role be? How do we make people think critically? What makes students creative and innovative? What credentials should one have? 

My favourite one among these is about Professional Education: How should a '21st Century Professional' train? There are several reasons why I want to ask the question. I have seen professions transforming both from inside - as a Professionally trained Marketer - and outside - as someone working closely in technology and technology training. But, more importantly, I ask this because this is not a fashionable question to ask. That professions, defined as a sort of social monopoly in some service areas, are supposed to be well-regulated and well-defined, which makes them less susceptible to change, and as a result, near-blind to the possibility of change.

But this immunity means nothing when deep and fundamental changes are setting in as a result of technological change and changes in the global economic flows. This is particularly relevant as globalisation reaches service industries, after fundamentally altering manufacturing. The services, accounting, media, law, and perhaps medicine, is globalisation's brave new frontier, and while machines do comparatively less well in services (than manufacturing), its impact has been no less dramatic. It is not for nothing one would say that United States has lost more jobs to Microsoft Word than to China!

The headline example of the transformation of the professions could be the recent Indian proposal to establish new professional regulators for Accounting, Company Secretaryship and Medicine. This is surprising not just because India's Charterd Accountancy body, Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI), is one of the most powerful and closely-guarded in the world, but also because India is not any hotbed of innovation in Professions and Education and rather, one of the most conservative of the professional cultures. Indian Civil Service, for example, still does not accept any outside expertise - for example, from Academicians or Corporate Leaders, as is common in other countries - even in the case of pressing requirements. The professional bodies affected by this move have been quite willing to exert their influence in policy-making - ICAI successfully kept big 4 and other accounting firms out of the lucretive audit market and resisted the global accounting standards successfully - and their members occupy most of the major decision making roles in the industry and in the administration. And, yet, the Indian Government wants to create a new and independent regulatory body, separate from the Professional bodies, with the intent to promote India as the 'Global Service Hub' - an effort to globalise to take advantage of globalisation!

The effect of technology is all too well-documented, and right across the spectrum, from the still-precarious practice of self-prescribed medicine to bot-Lawyers and book-keeping software, professions have been transformed. While it may be easy to dismiss the possibility of an algorithm replacing the needs of professional skills and expertise in foreseeable future, we should know that technologies have fundamentally altered the nature of knowledge - we are validating professional advice, rating our doctors and connecting with communities of users of professional services - and this is a fundamental change in the way the Professions operate. There is no smokescreen in effect, and some professions are less ready for this transparency than others. And, finally, expectations are changing too: As professionals change from 'knowledge workers' to 'realtionship workers', the concept of professional distinction and paths of professional progress are being redefined. 
 
The problem that the Professional Bodies face in redefining their trade is that their charter, their reason for existence, is built around protecting the profession and its privileges, and not to push an agenda for change. Most changes, particularly the self-sufficient customers, are likely to be a threat to the very existence of the professions. And, this is not just a technology-versus-profession narrative in which the profession should be the 'bad guy'; Intuit, a technology company which made its fortune by disrupting the accounting profession through its book-keeping software, fought change in their turn when the Federal Government wanted to simplify individual tax returns that may have eliminated or reduced the need of its software. However, Professional Bodies are designed for a state of stability, rather than the flux we are into, and are often low on imagination how the next generation of professionals need to be trained.
 
While some aspects of the answer are obvious, that the next generation of professionals need to be more global, more relationship oriented, more technology savvy, and more transparent, it is more complicated to create a workable model within the current professional structures. Take any of these aspects - the balance between regulated processes and global-mindedness, for example - and the emergent picture is always more challenging. The mindset, inevitable at the time of great change, is that there is an inevitable trade-off between these newly preferred abilities and the traditionally defined competences. While a customer may not see the logic why a friendly doctor may not be competent as well, for the Professions itself, whose job it is to define the standards and work as a gatekeeper, there may be a real trade-off in valuing one competence over the other. For them, it is also accepting broader, externally defined standards in the place of well-established code of practices: The professional oath of a lawyer has now somewhat been superseded by the demands of transparency, and this may indeed mean a new way of looking at, and doing, things.
 
While these conflicts and trade-offs often make the conversation about change of professions into one of entitlements, of winners and losers, with technologies on one side and professionals on another, the true challenge for professional bodies to meet is one of rising expectations. What the customers (or society, if you wish) want is faster service, greater empathy, more inclusivity and deeper transparency. Framing the story as one of 'disruption', though the word means two different things for technologists and professionals,  does an enormous disservice, and take the focus away from how we should train the next generation of professionals. 

Indeed, these demands are not new, but we are at a point when these demands have become so crucial to the professions that they are fundamentally different. So far, the Professional bodies responded to these 'additional' demands by creating 'Plus' models - introducing requirements of soft skills, adding technology training, creating premium Continuous Professional Development courses for global exposure, and upping the standards of transparency - but stopped short of redefining what the Professional Expertise meant. So, even with this new and updated standards, an Accountant is meant to be an Accountant, not a Finance professional trained to measure risks in a global and technological environment, adept at making decisions and communicating this to the wider world. This has led to crisis of the professions: Professional Accountants ignored strategic risks, respected organisations failed to detect their own conflicts of interest in advising and auditing the client at the same time, etc. 

My work now is focused on creating models for a new professional education - globally conscious, technology enabled, relationship centred - in a variety of ways, through deeper employer engagement, set in a global environment and built around ethical and strategic reflections within the context of professional work. The starting point of this is an Accounting programme delivered remotely in various countries, and I am hoping to transition that into various professional areas and in a global setting, combining travel, work and collaborative study.
 


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