Collaboration: The New Professional Paradigm

December 21, 2005 · by Carol Jones

In 1957, Ernest Greenwold, a social scientist, made a provocative distinction between professions and occupations, suggesting that professions could be distinguished from occupations by certain characteristics.

In 1957, Ernest Greenwold, a social scientist, made a provocative distinction between professions and occupations, suggesting that professions could be distinguished from occupations by certain characteristics. One of his premises states that a profession has broad community sanction and approval powers. This sanction is maintained through the profession's control over the educational training of professionals. It is also maintained through public recognition of the profession by means of registration, certification, or licensure of the profession's members.

Greenwold suggests that by granting or withholding accreditation, a profession regulates its schools as to their curriculum content and caliber of instruction. A profession's performance of this function is critical to obtaining public sanction and recognition.

We all know that the design schools and programs are the roots of the design profession. However, once the tree is out of the ground, it must be continually, soundly, and appropriately nurtured.

Carrying the tree metaphor further and paraphrasing a familiar quotation, it's our professional responsibility to plant trees in whose shade we do not expect to sit. Educational reform is a long-term commitment and endeavor, but essential to the profession's future. Designers must influence and support the design academies.

Another of Greenwold's defining characteristic of a profession is the presence of a code of ethics regulating relations of professionals with their clients and with each other. Greenwold goes on to say, "The ethics governing colleague relationships demand behaviour that is supportive, co-operative, and egalitarian. Members of a profession share technical knowledge with each other. Any advance in theory and practice made by one professional is quickly disseminated to colleagues through the professional associations. The proprietary and quasi-secretive attitudes toward discovery and invention prevalent in the industrial and commercial world are out of place in the professional world."

This premise stipulates that sharing information is not only beneficial to expanding the professional body of knowledge, but that it is our ethical duty to do so. This is a challenge that will certainly test our ethical stamina!

I have witnessed countless turf wars over the last 20 years between architects and interior designers who viewed each other as the enemy. They are not each other's enemy. Their joint enemy is lack of awareness, understanding, and appreciation on the part of the general public. Public ignorance is the enemy. What if the total energy and resources that have been spent in North America over the last 20 years by interior designers and architects fighting over market share had instead been invested in growing the market for architectural and interior design services? As a profession, we need to raise the stock, the value, of design by promoting and reinforcing the consulting aspects of the profession. It is our clients' respect and demand for our expertise that imbues the designer with authority. We must prove that the value of design is not just in the product or end result, but also in the management of the collaborative process with the client.

The creation and application of new information is vital to the future success of the profession. It will enable us to promote design as a knowledge-centered profession. It will help us to support our practitioners, our educators, and our industry partners by identifying and measuring the value of design. Research is inextricably linked to education and advocacy for the profession.

Jo Ann Asher Thompson described the ongoing separation of "town and gown": "In the demanding world of the practitioner, it is difficult to relate research to the daily routines of a design practice. When caught up in the day-to-day activities of running an office, meeting the demands of clients, keeping abreast of new product and technological advances, and exploring design solutions, practitioners are hard pressed to think of design research as a part of their world." Research, in their minds, belongs with educators, but they do not see it "as relevant or essential to the very existence of the profession in which they are engaged. Physicians and lawyers have long recognized the generation of new knowledge as a fundamental underpinning for their profession; yet this is not the case for designers."

In order make a value proposition for design, the professional needs access to a body of research, a database of projects that have measured and proven success. We know subjectively and anecdotally what design can achieve, but we need documented case studies in order to demonstrate measurable results to clients. This is an area in which designers and design firms are holding the profession back. A great deal of project-related research is being generated every day by design firms. But firms view this data as proprietary and a method of market differentiation in their competition with other firms.

What happens in the medical world when a new discovery is made? It's quickly published and disseminated so that the whole profession can access it. Does it diminish the originator's practice of medicine? No, in fact, it elevates the whole medical profession in the public's eyes. We might wonder, in fact, if it's ethical to treat professional knowledge as proprietary. Designers need to realize that by sharing design data, research, and findings, they are helping to grow the credibility of the profession, which helps everyone, including them. We need some real leadership in this area.

Here's an interesting and cautionary note that was provided at the IIDA Research Summit by Brad Powell, the editor of the officeinsight newsletter and a self-described "recovering" attorney: "By becoming a research based discipline you increase reasonable expectations - along with that comes increased liability. The standard of care is that which is commonly practiced in a particular professional community. If research is pertinent to your work and is reasonably accessible, you are obligated to use it or risk being accused of negligence. The professions for which there is the greatest amount of research have the greatest liability, for example, the medical profession." This is not to suggest that we avoid research, but to emphasize that becoming a research-focused profession is raising a bar which we must then all step over.

For hundreds of years our business economy has been fuelled by the sacred principle of competition. The success of companies with products or services to sell has been measured by their effectiveness in competing with other companies for the same customer, client, or market share.

Competition does not, however, promote excellence because trying to do well and trying to beat others are two different activities. Competition consumes valuable time and resources, long considered "the cost of doing business." In a world trying to do more with less, competitive strategies frequently lose to strategies that promote collaboration. Competition focuses on a short time horizon, while collaboration supports the strategy of the long view.

The principle of collaborative design is that all disciplines work as a seamless team, adding value to each others' work. Sustainable design, in fact, only works through the collaboration of a team of committed individuals from all building disciplines. As collaboration replaces competition as the currency of the marketplace, strategic alliances, partnering, and joint ventures will become the new models for success. Design leaders will focus on creating value for their clients, intelligence and skill in their students, wellness in their patients, and pride in their citizens. The creation of innovation and excellence will be the reason we work.

-Carol Jones

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