Professional work in the 21st century

Brian E Lloyd and Kim Rickard, APESMA

This article is abridged from “The Growth of Contingent Work: Implications for Professional Engineers and their Professional Associations in the 21st Century” Small Business Monograph Series, Melbourne: Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia (APESMA), 2001. This monograph is a summary of chapter 17 of “Engineering the Future: Preparing Professional Engineers for the 21st Century”, Histec Publications, 2001.

Knowledge as Intellectual Capital

As the 20th Century drew to a close, a conventional wisdom in financial markets had it that old industrial enterprises were struggling in the face of competition from the nimble, information-based organisations. While Kennedy (1999) wrote about the knowledge needed to underpin enterprises that actually make things, many ‘new age’ writers envisaged knowledge as information, and an end in itself. They saw the ‘information age’ as concerned with collection and storage of data, without understanding that there is no point if data is not turned into knowledge and put to creative use. Even in the new world there remains a need for enterprises that make things and other enterprises to build, operate and maintain facilities and infrastructure. The intellectual capital underpinning such knowledge and material effort is what engineers are about.

During the 20th Century the swings and roundabouts in enterprise management may be seen in terms of cyclical revolutions that swept the world as one theory was replaced by another, then seen as the solution to all problems—until the next one came along. At the beginning of the 20th Century there was the engineering approach of Frederick Taylor, seeing people as extensions of machines. Then there were human-centred theories envisaging organisations as social systems. But in both there was a conventional wisdom that people were lumped in with other costs of owning and operating a business. In the 1990s slash and burn management got rid of people to improve the immediate bottom line, without regard to the need to nurture and retain intellectual capital as the principal underpin of long term enterprise viability.

There is unlikely ever to be a return to the old hierarchical organisation.

Perhaps the corporate downsizing and restructuring phase of management will run its course, but there is unlikely ever to be a return to the old hierarchical organisation, and the new model is likely to continue a heavy reliance upon casualisation of employment. Therefore the two elements of the human capital equation, the people and the structure of organisation, will take new forms. Large enterprises will adapt and arrange their organisations to optimise competitive advantage. However, given the demonstrated past absence of intellectual understanding of such issues among the leaders of many enterprises, and among professional people at large, can we be confident of the evolution of a new model of interpenetration between the enterprise and the professions upon which they depend? How will enterprises and their contingent professional employees cope with a need for developing and maintaining intellectual capital and corporate memory?

The Changed Professional Workplace

Social analyses by Latham (1998) and by Sennett (1998) explored how workplace change in the 1990s destroyed a quality of life that used to bind people together in organisations. The most damaging personal consequences were withering of social relationship networks previously nurtured through shared experiences in long-term employment. The traditional job provided income, future security, career advancement and individual social satisfaction derived from occupational identity. The new-age approach of project teams formed and disbanded allows for no permanent attachments.

The new age CEOs who concentrate on the short-term at the expense of the long-term stultify engineering development by creating an illusion of enhancing short-term wealth by so-called ‘re-engineering’. Strategies of constant change develop a chameleon culture in which the organisation seeks to re-invent itself to become leaner, flatter, more flexible and more profitable. In the process carefully cultivated engineering knowledge and skills are devalued as practices, product designs, competitor intelligence and capital equipment are consigned to the scrap heap. The end point often is a moribund enterprise incapable of long-term survival. By the time that is realised, the CEO has ‘moved on’ with a significant increase in personal wealth, leaving a trail of ruined lives and an enterprise at risk.

Richard Sennett (1998) has argued that when the cult of short-termism overtakes an enterprise, it destroys trust and mutual commitment between people. It corrodes character because valued qualities become adaptability, openness to change at short notice, and preparedness to take risks continually. Such qualities are expected to replace the attributes of good character: loyalty, stability, mutual commitment and the pursuit of long-term goals. There should be no surprise that when an employer exposes employees to the brutalities of ‘downsizing’, those who remain see the employer as disloyal to them and cease to make a personal investment in their contribution to the enterprise. Colleagues may become competitors as the number of jobs shrink, and a culture of detachment becomes a better way of dealing with people than behaviour based on loyalty and service, especially when an erstwhile colleague begins handing out dismissal notices.

Loss of social connectedness in employment diminishes society.

The past stable social institution of the employing organisation contributed to a civil society: loss of social connectedness in employment diminishes society. In the new world many engineers have to operate as contingent employees outside the traditional social framework of an enterprise work place. Change came in the same era as the diminishing professional connectedness among engineers, compounding a reduction in ethical commitment. Such trends erode the very foundations of a civil society. For many engineers who once knew trust and friendship, and who valued ethical contribution to the public good, there is now self-centred competition and loneliness. But there have been engineers on both ends of the social upheaval in work. There are some engineers imbued with economic rationalist ideologies and contributing to the brutalised processes of so-called re-engineering of enterprises. Such engineers place themselves on one side of an ideological and social divide. While the question of whether downsizing is short-term economic rationalist strategy, or a legitimate competitive strategy will continue to be argued, there are many more engineers on the other side of the divide at present, and it is with them that we are concerned.

In the new Darwinian world individuals on both sides of the divide put effort into strategies for survival and preparation for an uncertain future. In a civil society more than that is expected of professional people: ideally there will be a collective spirit of helping colleagues who are struggling, and mutual support in values and interests held in common. The true professional will understand that in return for professional status, there is an obligation to share privileges with colleagues and to contribute to societal good. In the new world of work, such values are more important than ever, and a new professional model must form a professional society that will enable members to build connections in new ways. This implies a changed professional model.

The Guild Model for Professional Work

For many people in the 1990s, making a living began a shift back to the pre-industrial mode of self-reliance and income insecurity. For many professional people the managerial revolution of flexible non-traditional employment obliterated the concept of a secure job. As a response, for workers who no longer have a continuing affiliation with an employing enterprise, Laubacher and Malone (1999) propose the idea of associations of employees based upon common interests and needs and using the metaphor of the medieval guild.

While admitting that new ways of working at times result in improved economic efficiency and flexibility, they ask “what about the individuals in these flexible networks? Where will they go to fulfil the human needs that are satisfied today by large organisations? How, for instance, will they find financial security? Who will provide for their… retirement? Will they be lonely, working all day with their customers and suppliers, but never with colleagues?” The issue became highly polarised in Australia with some extolling the benefits of flexible work and ignore human costs, and others emphasising the human costs without acknowledging possible enhancement of overall efficiency and effectiveness.

Laubacher and Malone point out that working as an employee, dependent on steady income that does not vary with the ups and downs of the employing organisation, became the norm during the 20th Century. Prior to the Industrial Revolution most people worked for themselves as farmers, artisans or small shopkeepers. Many belonged to some form of association that “provided mutual aid, means for finding future work, and a setting where learning and sharing of skills could occur. These organisations offered a forum where workers could meet and be acknowledged by their peers. Some… most notably associations of skilled tradesmen—could trace their history back to the middle ages [and] the medieval guild movement.”

Transferring this idea: a professional ‘guild’ could provide for human and economic needs for a stable base and income security for people moving from one engagement to another. The ‘guild’ also could facilitate a path of upward career mobility, social as well as occupational identity, a congenial social environment associated with work, and provisions for health and retirement. The same ‘engineering guild’ could embrace salaried and contingent employee engineers and technologists having common interests and needs, and support them as the locus of social interaction, recognition and professional identification.

A professional ‘guild’ could provide for people moving from one engagement to another.

While independent professionals carry unemployment insurance, the ‘guild’ could manage unemployment risks through member contributions to a ‘guild’ fund while they were in work, in return for a guaranteed minimum income between jobs. Such a scheme would motivate members to help colleagues to find engagements and to keep up to date with their continuing professional development (CPD), and exert social pressure on any members not trying. The ‘guild’ would assist members to find work, and might also bid for specific engagements for groups of members. This function would entail establishing and verifying a professional register recording work engagements undertaken. The approach could extend to classification standards for defined levels of knowledge, skills, experience and CPD coupled to pay bands.

Facilitation of personal development would be an important ‘guild’ function, both in sponsoring initial professional development programs with co-operating employing bodies, and in arranging CPD. Experienced members could become mentors for graduates, perhaps in shadowing arrangements. Through life-long personal CPD for members, and in matching the attributes of members to available work opportunities, the interests of the guild would be closely aligned with those of the employing organisations. While the traditional collective pay representation role assumes an adversarial relationship between employees and management, under the ‘guild’ arrangement the representation role would assume harmony of interests. The ‘guild’ could fulfil another important social need by organising gatherings for networking and advice, as the primary professional entity with which members identified. In place of the traditional social identification with the employer, the member’s primary social and occupational identity would be associated with the ‘guild’.


The world of the future could see a growing recognition that one of the most important assets of a society are the professional people who create and lead the work of organisations and industries, whether as permanent employees or as contingent workers, who provide intellectual leadership and creativity in the form of a resource brought into an organisation or industry. The professional associations have a role in the evolution of such developments, in establishing a balance between a professional work force comprising salaried and contingent employees, and providing effective support for each group which takes into account their specific and mutual needs in terms of their work arrangements.


Kennedy, Malcolm (1999) “Communicating knowledge in the real world” President’s Inaugural Address, Institute of Electrical Engineers

Latham, Mark (1998) Civilising Global Capital, Allen & Unwin.

Laubacher, R.J. and T.W. Malone (1999) “Initiative on Inventing the Organizations of the 21st Century” Working Paper No 004, 2nd World Conference of Professional Engineer and Scientist Organisations, 22–24 March, Melbourne, Australia.

Sennett, Richard (1998) Corrosion of Character: the Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, Norton.

Dr Brian Lloyd AM practises as a consultant in occupational analysis and education and is an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University. He is a past President of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, a Distinguished Life Member of APESMA and the author of books on engineering education, human resources and Australian history. Kim Rickard is Research / Information Officer with APESMA and the Executive Officer of CONNECT, APESMA’s Professional Contractors Group.