Branding Report Professions

What is the difference between a job and a profession? It seems that, relative to professional jobs, ordinary jobs tend to be less well-paid, prestigious, autonomous, long-lasting, formally trained, regulated, organized, or associated with idealism and identity. But why are these features correlated, and why do we tend to see profession vs. not as a binary distinction?

One standard story is that professions exist when it is hard for customers to judge worker output quality. In response, customers push workers to rate each other’s quality, and this requires that workers organize. No doubt work does vary in this parameter. But workers are often lousy at judging each other’s output, once rated there’s no need to ban low quality workers, output quality seems hard to judge in a great many non-professions, and employers find many useful ways to judge worker quality without organized professions. So I doubt this explains that much of why professions exist.

Another simple story that may work better is that the key is simply organization. When workers organize, they can better promote their cause, especially via regulation. Stronger identity and idealism helps induce organization, and organization leads to more prestige and money. Plausible, but is it the whole story?

A third story is that the key is prestige. When the wider world is more willing to admire and idealize some kind of work, then that world becomes more willing to let these workers be autonomous, and to together control how they are educated and limit who can do that work. Which induces those workers to organize more, to gain these benefits, and to police prestige-related member behavior. That is, when a big part of what they are selling is prestige, workers who look similar can gain by preventing any of them from degrading their shared image via un-prestigious features or behavior.

In this post I want to explore a fourth complementary story, intended to apply to the subset of professions I call “report professions”, wherein workers produce reports intended to persuade audiences. For example, investors rely on accountant audits to judge the financial health of firms. Engineers and planners creates designs and plans suggesting to potential backers that things can be done or built with particular methods, and within given time and cost budgets. Doctor diagnoses convince insurers to cover treatments for claimed illnesses. And the grades teachers assign students may convince employers to hire them. Furthermore, such reports aren’t incidental; inducing them is often the main reason customers hire such professionals.

In all of these case, the ideal is audiences who are persuaded by reports they believe to have been produced according to professional norms, with workers resisting pressures from bosses or customers to give more favorable reports. That is, audiences need to believe that the accountant won’t obey a boss who instructs them to say that their broke firm is flush with cash, and to believe that a teacher won’t give an A+ to a failing but financially-generous student. But this is actually a non-trivial situation to produce. Why exactly wouldn’t an accountant obey a boss seeking to make his firm look as good as possible? And why wouldn’t a teacher give a student as high a grade as he or she can afford?

To keep such accountants, teachers, etc. in line, it helps if they identify with the high ideals of their profession. But it can help even more to show a credible threat that some other professional of their type might quickly review their report and declare it to violate professional norms, leading to their expulsion from the profession. And to make this scenario believable it helps if this profession coordinates to train its similar-ability members similarly, to use relatively standard, stable, mechanical, and context-insensitive report-generating procedures. Without such procedures, its hard to see how a quick review could show violations. And it furthermore helps if there are ways to induce independent professionals to check suspicious reports, and then to punish violators found.

That is, report professionals need to coordinate to create and enforce a distinctive report-supporting “brand”. Without such coordination, their product is worthless. Which is why they push to organize and gain regulatory powers, and why the rest of us grant their requests.

This story doesn’t explain professions that don’t issue reports to persuade audiences. But for professionals who do issue reports, this story plausibly explains why such workers have more autonomy, training, regulation, organization, and idealism. No one will value their reports if members cannot credibly commit to following professional norms instead of the desires of their bosses and customers. And this story predicts that these factors will distort their methods away from being innovative and usefully adapted toward local conditions, and instead toward methods that are standard, stable, mechanical, and context-insensitive.

Ideally, branded report professions would be organized and compete like franchises, such as McDonalds or Burger King. While McDonalds can regulate its franchisees to ensure that they follow McDonald’s procedures, to protect the McDonald’s brand, it can’t regulate Burger King franchises. Similarly, ideally each profession would regulate the behavior of its members, to keep to its standard methods, but new professions could enter with new methods and compete for the same set of customers.

Alas, we instead typically allow prestigious professions to not only say who can be a member and what methods members must use, we also allow them to regulate this FOR ALL similar workers! For example, the official professional organizations that regulate legal, medical, accounting, teaching, and engineering are given control over any workers who do any similar sorts of jobs, not just those under their brand. It is as if we gave McDonalds the ability to regulate all burger places, all fast food places, or even all restaurants. That would not be good for innovation and adaptation in restaurants.

These overly broad regulatory powers seem to do great damage. They let lazy report professions lock in poor methods that don’t adapt much to local conditions, and that don’t innovate much over time. And as our world of once-completing nations is merging into a single world mob, with strong global coordination on regulations, competition between nations no longer functions to discipline such lazy nation-specific professional associations. To promote innovation and adaptation then, we instead need to allow the entry of new distinctly-branded report professions that compete with old ones for the same customers, perhaps even backed by profit-seeking investors. New professions in medical, legal, accounting, engineering, etc. Don’t let McDonalds tell Burger King how to cook.

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