Professionalisation of an industry. Is it important?

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I belong to two professional bodies: the Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS) and the Australasian Evaluation Society (AES). Despite having about 15 years’ experience working in these two fields, I recently acquired a professional qualification from one of these bodies and am working towards acquiring a professional qualification from the other.

The professionalisation of an industry means different things to different people, and to their professional bodies. There are a number of reasons why an industry may choose to professionalise, and why practitioners may wish to gain professional qualifications. Professional bodies may wish to develop a unique body of knowledge, control the standards and guidelines that apply to a field of practice, or perhaps to control the entry of those who practice in their field. They may also wish to develop, create or maintain the status of the professional field itself, and to avoid unethical behaviour or poor practice. Individuals may wish to demonstrate their knowledge and commitment to their field of practice, in order to gain a competitive advantage, and to make a commitment to continued learning.

For fields to professionalise they need to offer tools to make this happen, such as conferences, standards of practice, courses and qualifications. The Australian Market and Social Research Society has a long history of these offerings, whereas evaluation is a newer field of practice, and in fact, there is debate and discussion regarding whether evaluation is best referred to as a profession, or a field of practice.

Neither market research or evaluation practitioners are required to hold professional qualifications in order to practice. In fact, evaluation is not considered a profession today.  To be a good evaluator you need to have well developed skills in research methods and analysis, and other technical expertise. Yet the standards are not regulated. Currently, an evaluator is someone who presents themselves as such, regardless of what type of activities they dedicate to the practice. Evaluation is in the process of becoming recognised as a profession, yet there are only a few instances in the world where certification has emerged in the evaluation field. This is because the identity and field of knowledge within the practice of evaluation is still highly contested; it is still developing its own specialised knowledge base.

Canada has dedicated itself to the professionalisation of evaluation, whereas disputes within the membership of the American Evaluation Association have blocked progress in the USA. Within Australia, discussions are being held, research is being conducted, and tools are offered to gain professional qualifications, yet there is no agreed approach or standard as yet. The right balance must be sought between balance, autonomy and accountability if a field is to become a profession. But there are also challenges, including the difficulty in defining the field of practice and the role of the evaluator, the difficulty verifying the evaluator’s expertise, and the necessity to create new organisations or structures.

Recently I acquired a formal qualification through the Australian Market and Social Research Association: Qualified Practising Market Researcher (QPMR). Through a process of examination and practical assignment work, I  demonstrated that I am a professional market and social researcher recognised by my peers and industry body for my experience and knowledge. It also means I have made a commitment to ongoing professional development to maintain this qualification and to keep up to date with current thinking in the field.  At the same time I am working towards my Master of Evaluation through the University of Melbourne, as that relatively new course is a tangible example of a dedicated commitment the evaluation industry is making towards being recognised as a profession.

Of course, there are plenty of well established practitioners in market research, social research and evaluation, who have not acquired professional qualifications. But I am convinced of the benefits of holding these professional qualifications, both to my own practice as well as to my clients. I feel it is important for practitioners in both social research and evaluation to demonstrate their dedication to the field and their current knowledge base. I fully support the professionalisation of these industries and am a happy participant in the accreditation process.

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