What makes a profession?
Long before the founding of HBS in 1908, Harvard administrators wrestled with the challenge of defining the “profession” of management. Was there such a profession? Were all of the many subspecialties of business—activities ranging from the corner store to the management of great railroads—professions unto themselves?
Each of these subspecialties had its own rules, traditions, and deep stores of arcane knowledge. How could a “school of business” possibly hope to teach them all?
Or was there another way to look at the problem? For example: were there functions that cut across all kinds of businesses above a certain scale and scope? If you could teach these functions, and also help aspiring managers think across those functional lines, would that add up to a profession of “business administration”?
What about credentials? People had been in business for many millennia without an advanced degree—or any degree at all, for that matter. Did business practitioners need a graduate degree (or even an undergraduate degree)?
What about codes of behavior, to which business professionals could be held? Was the law alone sufficient to define what was professionally acceptable, or did business have an obligation to police itself?
The professions of medicine and law provided some guidance, although both were still in a process of evolution themselves. (Medicine, with its life-and-death implications, was much farther along in 1908.) Ultimately, Harvard and its business school concluded, there were at least four critical building blocks that contributed to the making of a profession:
- a clear definition of the scope of that profession. What’s included under the umbrella of “management,” and—just as important—what isn’t?
- a core body of knowledge. Lawyers have court decisions to draw upon. Doctors have research findings derived from the study of the physical world. What’s the equivalent for a manager—the indispensable core of knowledge that he or she draws upon when action is needed?
- an ethical framework. Doctors traditionally have taken some form of the Hippocratic oath, which outlines acceptable medical conduct. Lawyers agree to put their clients’ interests before their own. Doctors who engage in egregious malpractice lose their licenses; lawyers who are convicted of felonies are disbarred. What are the parallel standards and sanctions for business? Is there a formal accrediting body for schools of business? Is there a clear professional training path, with widely accepted credentials that are a precondition to the practice of the profession of business? Are there journals that document and disseminate the evolution of that profession?
In 1908, none of these building blocks were in place. A half century later, Dean David admitted ruefully that “business…is not yet a profession.” The struggle to put professional foundations in place at HBS continued—and still continues today.