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How Business Education Can Reinforce Business as a Professional Pursuit

Posted February 27, 2018 by Tom Robinson - President and CEO - AACSB International

AACSB was formed just over 100 years ago when schools of business began to appear in universities. In earlier times, education for business largely occurred through apprenticeships or trade school education. One impetus for placing schools of business in colleges and universities was to create a more professional environment for business education that included higher education with broad exposure to a higher social purpose—the idea that business, properly conducted, involved a calling beyond just making a profit. Following the financial crisis of a decade ago, interest in this idea was again reinforced, including among students. Today, millennials want to do well, but they also want to do good.

When AACSB engaged in a strategic planning process three years ago, we modified our mission and vision to highlight this aspect of our history and to emphasize the notion that business and business education are each a force for good. Our recently articulated mission and vision, respectively, are to “foster engagement, accelerate innovation, and amplify impact in business education,” and to “transform business education for global prosperity.” We feel business and business schools have already been a force for good in society, but more can always be done.

What Constitutes a Profession?

When people think of professions, the ones that come most readily to mind are medicine and law. Within business, public accounting is also viewed as a profession. The hallmarks of a profession are the so-called three E’s: education, experience, and ethics.

Education for a professional means higher education—typically graduate education—at the entry level. Education also includes continuing education. Professions like medicine, law, and public accounting require mandatory continuing education on a periodic basis to ensure the professional is remaining current and ultimately to protect the public. Other professional fields will encourage but not require continuing education, while others yet will strictly require retesting to maintain professional credentials. In today’s dynamic business environment, continuing education is no longer optional for anyone in business. Lifelong learning is essential for employees to both keep current and periodically reskill for changes in business and technology.

Experience is also essential for a professional. Some skills can only be learned and improved through experience. It is not unusual for professions to require a certain number of years of experience in order to obtain an initial license to practice. For example, earning the right to use the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) title has historically required one or two years of practice experience. Further, after retirement a professional may need to relinquish their license or designation, or use a modifier such as “inactive,” as they are not maintaining their currency through continuing practice experience.

Ethics also contributes to the idea of a higher calling. A professional has a responsibility to act in the interest of customers, patients, clients, and the public, placing the interest of those groups before their own interests. Most professions have a required code of ethics, and ethical lapses are met with expulsion or suspension for a period of time. Even without a formal code of ethics, professionals are expected to behave in a manner that looks after the public interest.

Is Business a Professional Pursuit?

While there is not a broad code of ethics for business, there are certainly ethical codes for some subdisciplines in business, so many do not view business writ large as a “profession.” This does not mean that business cannot be a professional pursuit or that businesspeople are not professionals. In fact, most businesspeople conduct themselves as professionals. They place the interest of their customers and clients first and know that this practice is good business. They can do well and do good at the same time. Additionally, they continue to hone their skills through practicing their chosen discipline and engage in lifelong learning to stay relevant.

Business School’s Role in Enhancing the Professionalism of Business Practice

Business schools play a key role in preparing students to become professionals. The eligibility criteria for AACSB initial accreditation require that a school must encourage and support ethical behavior and address social responsibility issues such as diversity, sustainable development, and environmental sustainability. The continuous review standards require curriculum coverage of ethical understanding and reasoning, social responsibility, sustainability, and diversity. Business schools should go beyond these standards, however, to stress what being a business professional means and how good behavior is good business. Many business schools have cocurricular activities that help students acclimate to the professional world and to what behavior is expected.

Business schools have also done a great deal to provide students with real business experience during their studies. Experiential learning, internships, real-life business projects, and global understanding opportunities abound in today’s business schools. This trend should continue. Technology enables us to move basic learning out of the classroom and bring real-life cases and application into the classroom. Students will have a head start in becoming a professional through these activities.

Business schools already do a fine job of providing initial education either at the undergraduate or graduate level. They also provide continuing and executive education courses. More can be done to infuse a mindset of lifelong learning for professionalism in students. Business schools can also work even closer with the business community to make sure the professionals currently in the workforce are kept up to date.