The Puzzle For Professional Bodies

Much of the working world has been turned upside down at least once thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some organisations are still in crisis mode, but there are others for whom little has changed since the first great shifts made in early 2020.

This is a particularly interesting puzzle for professional bodies. Broadly speaking, they exist to improve the many facets of the workforce (businesses, individuals, disciplines) by promoting excellence in their fields. This is generally achieved through networking events, professional development resources, and even accredited courses with education and apprenticeship providers. How do such organisations cope with the workforce of today, which spans a spectrum from those barely surviving to those with the luxury to thrive?

To be successful and sustainable, a professional body’s offerings should span a similar spectrum. A workforce in crisis mode must prioritise endurance over excellence; for a corresponding professional body to justify its existence – never mind the membership fees – it must tailor its offerings accordingly. And indeed, many acted rapidly to deploy resources that would help their audiences and members cope with the initial impact of Covid-19. Scan a selection of their webpages and you may well find ‘Coronavirus hubs’ highlighting these survival resources.

However, the pandemic has spotlighted other areas impacting the long-term survivability of various professions and industries, from poor records on diversity, to Brexit, to navigating ongoing physical distancing and travel restrictions. And what of concerns beyond Covid-19? The year 2020 brought not only a global health crisis, but also global protests for social and climate justice – demands for transparency, accountability, and positive, sustainable change, including in the world of work.

If professional bodies do not effectively engage with core issues of both short- and long-term survival – and exemplify the excellence they ask of others – they will face serious questioning. The same will come if their internal governance and operation falls short of the transparency and accountability being sought from many other leadership figures today.

Consider the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). According to the Sunday Times, concerns have been raised about both the leadership of the RICS itself and whether it is an efficient and effective leader in the property industry. This is a sign for any professional body: if you do not or cannot ‘move with the times’ – at pace, and in response to the needs of key stakeholders – you will struggle to prove your worth.

One great lesson from the tumult of 2020 is that status will not always shield you. Prestige and authority – Chartered, academic, historic, or otherwise – is a double-edged sword. It grants professional bodies the power to set the standard and agenda in their respective fields, but it will not protect them if they are out of touch with the people they are supposed to serve.