Martin Martinoff spearheads AuditFutures, drawing in his extensive international experience spanning more than twenty years in the fields of entrepreneurship, design, innovation and policy. Throughout his career, he has developed innovative and meaningful projects at the intersections of business, civil society and academia. Through AuditFutures, Martin has created a forum for reflective dialogue and a platform for collaboration between multiple stakeholders, which has succeeded in motivating professionals and catalysing ideation within institutions.
The understanding of what professionalism entails remains vague in the field of business and finance, and I would like to argue that it needs to be revived and enriched. In my work with universities and professional services firms, I have seen professionalism often perceived as an elusive component, explained through ‘soft skills’ and reduced to a body of knowledge that can be codified in general ethical codes or decision-making procedures.
This leads to further misconceptions in aspiring professionals about the relationship between the individual and practice, between the firm and society. Therefore, I believe that the notion of ‘professionalism’ should be strengthened conceptually and taught (through formal curricula and implicit cultural norms) with the objective of humanising the technical content and helping to shape perceptions, emotions and intuitions as part of the professional identity.
Academic debates have rightfully emphasised the importance of thinking more deeply about the nature of professionalism. However, I find it concerning that these discussions are crowded out by the technical content in unicourses. Similarly, business and practice often only appear to pay lip-service to the topic. We also talk about scepticism as the holy grail of the audit profession but this tends to be dealt with in a superficial way and recommendations are limited to the need for ‘more scepticism’.
The accountancy profession prides itself on its heritage and its resilience. From its inception in 1880, chartered accountancy has sought to identify itself in terms of high standards and respectability and the ICAEW Royal Charter presents an inspirational vision for the accountant as a professional. Traditionally, what it meant to be an accountant rarely changed significantly from one generation to the next, so the role that accountants performed was well understood.
But the profession now faces opportunities and challenges from social, political and technological developments. New technologies deliver efficiencies, innovations and disruptions in the way that all knowledge-based work is done. At the same time, business theory, financial markets, laws and regulations are all becoming more sophisticated.
As the oft-quoted ‘Future of Professions’ book by Daniel and Richard Susskind argues, contemporary professions are failing — economically, technologically, psychologically, morally, and qualitatively — and they should and will be replaced by feasible alternatives. Such a doomsday scenario poses particular challenges to the identity of our profession and requires us to think critically about the nature of our work.
There is another dimension to how professions are changing. Historically, professionals have shared similar backgrounds. Routes into the audit profession have tended to emphasise a grounding in audit and collective early experiences for audit juniors, like the “war stories” of the New Year’s Eve stock count, forming a bond that endures into later careers. These common attributes and experiences helped shape attitudes and beliefs that created the identity of the profession; a shared understanding of what it was to be a chartered accountant.
Today, openness and diversity in recruitment are taking the UK profession into unchartered waters. This is demonstrated by the different journeys that an individual could take to become a qualified professional, and the multiple destinations and functions that they could have as a practitioner. This varied process of initiation into the profession is unprecedented, though it also challenges the extent to which there can be a shared experience and common values for individuals coming into the profession.
I believe that it is essential that the accountancy profession responds decisively to the challenges imposed by this new context and I would make the challenge even bigger. While accountants are rightfully proud of their code of ethics and their specialised skills, the question we need to ask is whether these are enough for future professionals who aspire to motivate, engage and lead.
It takes a long time to develop a professional identity and to become an expert, but it is important that beliefs and attitudes are shaped early on, as individuals enter the profession. What unifies and shapes a profession is an ethos which showcases the key tenets of the profession and motivates and inspires individuals on their professional journey.
Ethos is also an important guiding principle for young professionals as they develop knowledge and skills, and become more acquainted with the nature of the profession. The existing professional ethos functions as a signal that is communicated to aspiring professionals both formally and informally – through compulsory education, higher education, and training; but also through stories, role models, language, norms, and expectations.
What can truly motivate people to engage and excel in their work is the understanding of a purpose. When people get personally involved, this builds intrinsic motivation and moral sensitivity. This in turn decreases the risk of further ethical violation and fosters the ability in people to critically recognise themselves as responsible individuals who contribute toward a specific greater good. To develop such critical outlook and moral motivations, a higher purpose has to be embedded and communicated through the ethos of the profession.
The learned professions, such as medicine and law, have taken the lead in thinking critically about the kind of service they offer, and the nature of the relationship between client, professional and society. Even so, social, political and technological changes have challenged the traditional ideas of professional expertise and the relationship between professions and society.
There is an obvious uncertainty about the social purpose of accounting. I believe this has had negative implications on the evolving nature of practice and its educational and training objectives. In speaking to students, trainees and professionals, I have seen a general agreement on the need to serve society, but little or no clarity on what working in the public interest might mean. Similarly, when asked about the purpose of accountancy, students share an appreciation of the profession’s wider societal importance but don’t understand its actual purpose and direct impact on the wider stakeholders. In focus interviews with practitioners and academics, the word “purpose” is often controversial and creates tensions relating to differences in values and political views.
Last year, we collaborated with the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues and their research pointed to similar concerns. Amongst interviewed students, ‘working for the public good’ was mentioned less often compared with the motivation for financial rewards. The narrow conception of ‘success’ (with a strong attachment to material rewards) and the strong focus on job prospects and employability appear to be the main motivation for business-school students, and accountancy students alike.
Such tensions and ambiguities point to the need to engage in more normative discussions about the evolving nature of the profession, and how accountancy as a practice could contribute to a rapidly changing society. There is an urgent need for inspiring leadership around a common purpose.
My background is in design and policy, and I consider that taking an anthropological and design-thinking approach is necessary to understand the changing social needs to which the profession needs to respond. To regain its attractiveness, relevance, retention and respect, the profession as a whole would benefit from placing more emphasis on the characteristics, values and attitudes that it wishes to instil in its members. It is not so much a matter of definition, but a matter of focusing on the conditions and culture that foster and encourage these virtues to flourish.
An important part of this approach would be to understand and design for the journey of becoming a professional – the stages at which individuals gain awareness, develop values, and progress toward becoming a professional. The quest to identify and nurture virtues is essential especially in the face of automation and the rapidly changing socio-economic context. Focusing on fostering qualities provides for sustainability and endurance, especially when technology could otherwise supersede specific technical or administrative skills.
Therefore, it is important to bring attention to the significance of character, qualities and purpose as necessary in guiding the work of a professional. Our key insight from our work is that there is a need to open a deeper and richer conversation about what defines us as professionals, the complex nature of the profession and its evolving role within society.
I am arguing that understanding and being motivated by the higher purpose of the professional practice is what drives a professional to engage and excel along their journey. As part of the journey, professionals should develop moral sensitivity and the ability to critically recognise themselves as responsible individuals. As professional people, they should recognise that their actions have a direct impact on society and the power and trust vested in them by society contribute toward a specific public good.
In our work, we often draw on the influential theory of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre who points out that professionals should have a critical view of themselves as moral agents. He argues that sensitivity and motivation come with the ability to reason independently. Thus, professionals should recognise that they have the ability and good reason to judge the normative standards guiding their work.
Simply said, professionals should have the ability to make independent decisions, by being critical toward their own biases as individuals and the professional standards that they follow.
People have specific reasons for doing things. They might be acquired from family, organisational culture or social norms. Acquired beliefs influence our behaviour: no behaviour is conceptually and contextually empty. Therefore, if we start to understand the purpose of an activity, such as professing accountancy, we start to develop an understanding about the reasoning behind it. By unpacking it, we understand our commitment to it or the rationale behind guiding rules and codes.
Therefore, we need a deeper and conceptual understanding of the purpose of the profession. I see this as an essential evaluative capacity that can help us appreciate things like the reasons behind rules and the context in which these rules have to be applied. This contextual understanding is fundamental in deciding when and how to act. Rules have to be in sync with morality. As MacIntyre eloquently points out, “if morality becomes a personal aspiration only, while in their professional life people follow rules, the essence of a profession will become a hollow concept.”
This line of thinking is quite different from the popular current thinking which is heavily influenced by behavioral science. Since we cannot know or control what individuals think or believe, we require certain standards of behaviours. While this might be considered as the best proxy, I would join moral philosophers in arguing that it is not enough and sustainable to ensure long-term commitment to the profession. Controlling for standards of behaviour does not provide the time and space to think about agency, motivation and judgment. Therefore, we need to create the conditions to foster individuals’ capacities for judgment
There is a paradox that we are creating by further emphasising and enforcing standards and rules. Aren’t we asking people to neglect their own commitment to family, friends, profession? Aren’t we asking people to subdue their own personal motivations in order to act on some universal and codified principles? This does not create motivation in people to do so.
The paradox, put in another way, is that we are asking people to do something without giving them motivation to do so. Our Ethos project tries to address this. With virtue ethics and purpose (telos) we are trying to help people understand purpose. In this context, politics is also important as we, as a profession, need to negotiate the purpose with society.
My lifelong dedication and passion has been to work with people to address the complexity of social problems and to use creative tools that help foster empathy in individuals and meaningful innovation organisations. Through my academic and professional experience, I have sought to develop a cross-disciplinary vision and awareness, which could provide me with the mindset and expertise to better bridge policy, design and technology.
That is why I believe we need new and powerful education experiences that develop a sense of liberation, curiosity and commitment in aspiring professionals. The very changing nature of the accountancy profession calls for critical education and training that broadens the perspective of learners beyond the required excellence through technical knowledge and skills but proactively guides them to develop an understanding of higher purpose, values, public good, and ethical leadership.
In our work, we have explored research within the learning sciences to develop an argument for designing approaches and methods that enable deeper and effective learning. We see constructivist pedagogical methods, democratic conditions and richer philosophical content as the foundations for powerful education experience in accountancy. We want to enrich the field of accountancy education by testing out new tools and methods for deeper learning, knowledge construction and identity formation.
A powerful education requires a holistic vision about the formal and informal components that contribute to professionals’ learning and experience. The work of AuditFutures has piloted and tested the normative method of ‘community of inquiry’ to emphasise the importance of critical thinking, habits of mind and character building in the context of accountancy degrees. The liberal arts component and the emphasis on critical inquiry have been used to make sense of professional standards and in fostering discretion instead of compliance.
We have designed educational practices and promoted culture that could foster the conditions for the promotion of excellence, ethics and engagement in aspiring professionals. Recent findings in the learning sciences research tell us that moral judgement in professionals should be developed as an interpersonal process, and not as a private reasoning process done by individuals.
Similarly, ethics content should be seen as integrated into the curriculum and mission, communicated through the culture, language, narratives and role models of the faculty; and through the shared experiences that extracurricular activities and group research projects foster. Individual and group identity should be leveraged as part of the education experience. A course that changes how an individual thinks of herself, and of her classmates/co-workers, has a greater chance of success than one that simply tries to educate the learner/practitioner and impart knowledge and skills.
The concept of ‘professionalism’ should be taught intentionally and discussed critically (through integrating narratives, experience and philosophy) with the objective of humanising the technical content and helping shape perceptions, responsiveness, emotions and intuitions as part of the professional identity. Furthermore, problem-based learning has been shown to improve group cohesion and learning triggered by solving problems, which is of particular importance to developing socio-emotional intelligence, communication, management, and motivation in professionals.
Positive stories can overcome negative preconceptions and problems that exist within modern professions, and attract the talent and values that they need for the future. One way that we are developing this is through AuditFutures’ Good Professional project, which aims to showcase real stories exemplifying role models of chartered accountants, from all walks of life. We believe that the fundamental question that we need to address in understanding the nature of our profession is: “What does it mean to be a good professional?”
By triggering deeper discussions and developing such narratives, we hope that they can offer inspiration, positive role models and moral guidance to aspiring professionals. Putting professional competencies, technical knowledge and ethical values in a broader context will enable reflection on the development of professional identity.
I want to encourage more professionals to consider the social purpose and the intrinsic good their profession serves and aspires to. I believe this has the potential to foster personal motivation and development of both intellectual and ethical virtues that go beyond the discussion of technical knowledge and skills. Also, this has practical value and can help individuals and the profession respond to the opportunities of artificial intelligence and other technologies by expanding innovative work and reflecting on how the profession contributes value to society.