From Practice to Profession

group of association coworkers July 25, 2016

Ongoing ASAE Foundation research is showing that associations are directly linked to professionalization in various career fields and is exploring the characteristics that distinguish a profession from an occupation.

Associations are central players in the acquisition and maintenance of knowledge, skills, and professional community that distinguish professions from occupations, according to ASAE Foundation research. The lines between occupations and professions are murky, and this study seeks to isolate the characteristics of professions and understand the potential advantages and disadvantages of professionalization for a field, giving association leaders guideposts for organizational planning.

Findings from the first phase of the study, published in the research brief “From Practice to Profession: First Findings from a Study on the Nature and Process of Professionalization” [PDF], indicate that associations are directly connected to the professionalization process. Indeed, many of the identifying characteristics of professions are managed by associations, including codes of ethics, credentialing, and advocacy.

In the project’s second phase, through focus groups and interviews with association leaders, researchers mapped the trajectories of developing professions and how they connect to association work. They identified five pursuits that advance a line of work from practice to profession:

Developing professional community. As practitioners in a field start to come together to discuss questions and interests unique to their work and experiences, a shared identity develops. The community frequently organizes an association, which provides a body to represent the community and pursue its interests.

Defining the professional body of knowledge. Occupational fields establish the areas of expertise for their professions, often curated and disseminated through an association. These definitions express a field’s difference from other areas of work, enabling professionals to promote their specific purpose and contributions to society.

Many of the identifying characteristics of professions are managed by associations, including codes of ethics, credentialing, and advocacy.

Developing education and certification standards. Associations invest in educational programming to develop and support skilled professionals. Offering certification allows associations to identify those professionals who are considered masters of required knowledge. The decision to provide professional-level continuing education has consequences, though—it requires associations to dedicate resources for training, the administration of exams, and other educational services.

Raising professional standards. Associations pursue higher standards for their industry to elevate the quality of work professionals do and raise public perceptions of the profession. They may do this by establishing higher standards of certification, more stringent training requirements, or greater education or work experience prerequisites. Such efforts have a beneficial side effect—rigorous standards tend to raise the profile of a profession. But associations pursuing this route must decide whether or not to limit membership to certified professionals. Currently only a small number of associations limit membership in this way.

Tying qualifications to state regulation. If the goal for an association is market exclusivity—that is, maintaining ownership of the process for qualifying as a professional in the field—it often must engage with some form of governmental regulation. In the United States, this occurs most often at the state level. Regulation may take the form of registration with a relevant agency, voluntary certification through a government-appointed agency, or, at its most restrictive, state licensing. Some associations seek state regulation in pursuit of exclusivity, or licensure may be imposed by the government, especially if the professional field relates to public health or safety.

State regulation may boost professional recognition and standards, but professionals in some industries may find such restrictions excessive. For this reason and others, some associations are working to develop industry confidence in their qualifying standards and increase public recognition of their distinct fields, pursuing market exclusivity on the strength of their brands (see sidebar).

The Practice to Profession research team, based at the Professional Services Research and Innovation Hub of the University of Leeds and the Centre for Professions Work and Organization at the University of Newcastle, will complete the second-phase research report this summer.