Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Towards a Discipline of Practice

I see that the discussion on David Maister's questions on his personal strategy is now up to 54 posts!

As part of the discussion Prem Chandavarkar made a rather nice distinction. He wrote:

I believe the problem lies in the fact that we lack a disciplinary definition of practice. Most of us enter a profession through a formal training in the discipline. The training tends to focus on enabling us to acquire a strong conceptual understanding of the profession as a discipline - its core realm of knowlege, its value to the world, its methodologies. Success, within this academic context, is defined in terms of the intellectual contribution one can make towards the extension of the boundaries of the discipline - and this builds a strong sense of self worth and personal fulfillment because it constructs higher realms of reality.

But when we talk about forms of practice (such as the structure and strategy of firms) we are unable to talk about it in disciplinary terms, and we shift outside the discipline toward a language of management. It appears that practice is seen as a method rather than a philosophy.

Extending Prem's analysis, I think that there are in fact three overlapping knowledge domains:

  1. The profession itself, whether it be engineering, medicine, law or training. Most professional education and training focuses on this as Prem notes.
  2. The application of the profession in practice by individual professionals. Doctor/patient, lawyer/client etc. Essentially, how do we do what we do.
  3. The management of the overall practice. Essentially, how do we manage what we do.

Knowledge domain one is largely unique to each profession, although all professions can learn from others in regard to the way people are taught, knowledge structured.

Knowledge domains two and especially three cross professions. Each profession has unique features that influence approach, but they are still common knowledge domains.

Looking briefly at two and three.

On the surface, the application of each profession in practice may not seem connected. What do, say, law and medicine have in common? At least this:

  1. Common techniques can be used to analyse the processes followed by professionals in their work.
  2. A least some of the elements in those processes are common. For example, both lawyers and doctors have to begin each engagement (matter in the case of the lawyer, consultation in the case of the doctor) with a diagnostic. Comparison of the different application of common process elements between professions can yield fruitful insights.

The commonalities between management of practices across professions are better understood. However, there is in fact a gap here.

If you look at the literature you will find a range of general advice and principles drawn from management. You will also find a volume of nitty gritty material classified under the general head of practice management. This is often encapsulated in specific practice management courses and qualifications.

The gap as I see it between the two, and I think that this holds even though David Maister among others has written on the topic, is the gap that Prem points to, the absence of a fully articulated philosophy of practice that takes into account the unique features of professional practice.

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