'It is the essence of professionalism to apply objective standards of craftsmanship and accomplishment to one's work rather than business criteria.' Peter Drucker, 'Management and the professional employee', Harvard Business Review, 1952.

'Process and procedure are the last hiding place of people without the wit and wisdom to do their job properly.' David Brent, The Office, BBC TV.

Everyone in today's world would take it for granted that occupations generally understood to be professionals, such as teachers, doctors, nurses, architects, lawyers, accountants and others are regulated either by professional bodies (RIBA, ACA and others) or independent regulatory organisations (General Teaching Council, GMC, NMC).

Over time, self regulatory bodies have eventually had to become independent or statutory, and, in most cases, both.

Underpinning such regulation are a number of pillars:

  • the requirement to reach defined objective standards, independent of subjective business or organisational criteria.
  • independent verification, accreditation and certification, qualification and registration as a public record of achieving this standard.
  • The potential for disciplinary sanctions up to and including the possibility of losing registration and the opportunity to practise in the chosen professional field.

However, it is easy to forget that this was not always the case, and such professionalism has in many cases had a long history of development, often arising from public scandal at the time and the resultant public outcry for 'something to be done'.

Information technology is no longer merely a stand-alone product sitting on the desk or in the pocket. It is woven into the fabric of business, private and public services and our lives. Information technology systems and services are now often business critical, safety critical or in many cases both.

Financial control, procurement, supply chains, product development, and sales are all reliant on IT systems. Trains, airplanes, power stations, military equipment and defence systems, criminal records, tax and national insurance, and healthcare all now depend on the IT software and systems at their core.

And yet most private and public organisations rely on IT people to design, develop and operate these complex systems without, in many cases, any accreditation, certification or verification of any objective standards.

With the possible exception of journalism and the press, we do not allow other professionals to practise without objective standards of craftsmanship or accomplishment.

So why IT professionals?

Must we await some public or private sector disaster and the resultant public inquiry before action is taken?

It is for these reasons that Amicus, the second largest union in the UK with many IT users and professionals amongst its members, supports the call by BCS, Intellect and others to professionalise IT. There are also other reasons, and consequences that need to be understood:

  1. The need for a career structure and qualification framework to allow IT professionals to develop their skills and expertise, not just at the technical level but in leadership and management. As with procurement and supply of products, we have developed a 'just-in-time' approach to people skills in this country, which will in the future undermine the UK's ability to survive and thrive in the increasingly competitive and interconnected world.
  2. Understanding that risk and regulation are intertwined and that professionalisation will require regulation. There is a cost to regulation, both in setting up an agreed body of knowledge, and in verifying, certifying, accrediting, monitoring and enforcement in achieving and operating standards to accord with this body of knowledge.
  3. Acceptance that higher skills and professionalism will demand increased recognition and reward, individually and collectively. Whilst IT professionals may not generally be low-paid in absolute terms, they are low paid in many organisations relative to their skills and responsibilities as measured against other professionals such as lawyers and accountants. Their stature and status is often unrecognised. How many organisations have their chief information officer on the main board or governing body? In contrast, how many organisations fail to include their chief finance officer on the main board or governing body?
  4. The impact of outsourcing, both domestic and international (offshoring), is real and growing. The only way ultimately to compete with companies in India, China and elsewhere is to move up the value chain and increase levels of quality, competency, skill and professionalism. However, there is no invisible hand that will automatically do this, and organisations must continue to invest in people, skills and technology in the UK. Professionalising IT must form a key component of this strategy.

In India, Nasscom (the industry body for IT software and service companies) is in the process of establishing a National Skills Registry, which will contain verified personal, qualification and career information about IT professionals.

Whilst there are good reasons to be critical of how Nasscom has chosen to go about this in terms of its independence from employers and the use of biometric identification, this initiative does nevertheless indicate the desire to raise and monitor standards and professionalise the Indian IT and BPO industry.

Britain must recognise the need to drive up standards of craftsmanship and accomplishment and, as such, professionalise IT. Contrary to the wit of David Brent in The Office, this is not about process and procedure being a hiding place from getting the job done, but ensuring that the job exists in the first place and that it is done competently and capably to the highest standard.

Amicus, with its Parliamentary Group of 114 MPs at Westminster in both Houses and links into government and parliament, is fully committed to working with BCS, Intellect and other IT sector stakeholders to work towards this end. We cannot have a 19th century approach with 21st century technology.

Peter Skyte is national officer of Amicus.