Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Professional

Subroto Bagchi’s new book The Professional is a useful addition to the universe of self-help books. Though a trifle preachy, its virtue is that it speaks direct and “as it is” without beating about the bush.
While the issues he has covered are quite comprehensive, there are a few points that I would add.
One important aspect of professionalism is respecting the work of others. I find in many organisations that technical people have a disdainful view of functions such as HR and Admin, and don’t realise or acknowledge that HR and Admin have an important role to play in providing the environment in which techies work. I am also amazed by the impolite way in which several of our “educated” and “professionally qualified” friends behave with people doing “manual” tasks. Some of the examples Subroto has given (Mahadeva, the customer service person in the Japanese store) hint at this, but I would have preferred a more direct reference.
Another important dimension is acknowledging the contribution of others. Many times, in a team context, the leader takes the credit for things that have been accomplished without acknowledging the contribution of his or her team. I would consider that distinctly unprofessional behaviour. A related issue is free-riding - for example, in R&D teams, many times the team leader’s name is routinely appended to all disclosures, patent applications, or papers written even though s/he may have made no identifiable contribution to the intellectual property created.
As a professional, one should value the professional contribution of others. I had an interesting experience a couple of years ago. I had given a talk on Strategic Management of Intellectual Property at a CII event. Shortly thereafter, a manager from the Bangalore R&D Centre of a leading MNC technology company came and invited me to give a similar talk as part of his company lecture series. I told him that I would be happy to, but also suggested that there should be a professional fee in return for the talk. I explained to him that in the same way that they would expect their knowledge to be paid for by their internal or external customers, it was only fair that they pay me in return for accessing my knowledge. I also told him that I would not negotiate on the quantum of money, but I was more interested in the principle involved. Being new to the company, he was not sure of the company’s policy, so he agreed to discuss this with his boss and get back. I was really amazed when he got back and told me that in the past they had not been paying academics for giving talks and that it would be difficult to change the “policy.”
Responding to calls/letters/emails is another area in which professionalism is lacking in India. While there is no doubt that a senior corporate executive would receive a number of unsolicited communications each day, and it may be physically impossible for him to personally respond to all of them, what surprises me is that most of them don’t have a system to deal with such communications.
On the subject of integrity, I am really glad that Subroto has emphasised the importance of having a clear Integrity Policy and walking the talk. A few years ago, a colleague (Prof Manohar Reddy) and I conducted a survey of the ethical attitudes of our students. While all such surveys have their limitations because of their dependence on self-reported responses, we found a consistent pattern over a few years. About 20% of our students see themselves as “aggressively ethical” – i.e. they would stand by their values and beliefs, and what is right, under any circumstances. At the other end of the spectrum, about 10% are totally ends-driven – they will do whatever it takes, including actions that would be considered unethical by others, to achieve their own goals. The interesting group is the big 70% in the middle. They will be shaped by their environment, go with the “hawa” and what the organisation says. This is the reason why a clear corporate code and integrity policy is so important.