For the past 200 years, Britain has been a world leader in the development of professional standards
There is one great British competitive advantage that rarely makes the headlines. Compared to the latest James Bond film or album by Adele, it’s hardly sexy. Compared to a Burberry trench coat or a Brompton bicycle, it’s not particularly cool. Arguably, though, it could play one of the most significant roles for Britain in the future global economy, both as an earnings contributor and as a projection of soft power.
So let’s hear it for professional standards.
For the past 200 years, Britain has been a world leader in their development.
That’s because we got there first. Many of the world’s largest and most influential professional bodies were formed in Britain and remain in Britain. Their origins lie in the flowering of social clubs, learned societies and professional associations in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the corner of St James’s Park, Parliament Square and Birdcage Walk: next door to each other are the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, the Institute of Civil Engineers and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
All of them were founded by energetic Victorians. In 1818, three engineers formed the world’s first professional engineering body, the Institute of Civil Engineers, in a London coffee shop; by 1828, the formidable Thomas Telford was its chairman. The IMechE was founded in 1847 in Birmingham by the brilliant George Stephenson and moved to London in 1899. The RICS emerged from the amalgamation of bodies such as the Surveyors Club, the Land Surveyors Club, and the Surveyors’ Association, forming the Institution of Surveyors in 1868.
The collective energy and inventiveness of their members, combined with Britain’s economic imperial reach, explains the rise of such institutes. But their continuing influence owes much to a concept that dates back to the 11th century - the Royal Charter.
You can’t imagine inventing the Royal Charter today. But far from being an historic relic, its influence is undimmed. “Brand Britain is Brand Chartered,” says Ann Francke, chief executive of CMI.
Originally the only way to incorporate a company, charters are now rarely granted. After all, they can only be granted by the Monarch. The criteria for a body applying for a charter include being comprised of members of a unique profession that is able to demonstrate a track record of achievement over a number of years.
A chartered professional body submits to review and monitoring by the Privy Council. Future amendments to its charter and bye-laws require Privy Council approval. In other words, it volunteers to have Government oversight.
Unlike a trade body which represents the interests of its members, a chartered body is bound to protect the public interest above that of its members. It places a requirement to act in the public interest.
The real value of the Royal Charter is that it keeps a professional institute focused on its core charter responsibilities. That in turn builds and consolidates a profession’s status in society. And that takes an individual’s achievement of attaining chartered status beyond being just about credentials.
“The key message is that this is not about gaining a qualification - it is about joining a profession,” says Mark Protherough, executive director of professional learning and development at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW).
So chartered status is a mark of quality assurance. It’s a “Kitemark”; it demonstrates to employers, business partners and governments that members adhere to the highest standards in the world. It confers on those who achieve it a mark of professional excellence that has legitimacy across the world. It implies status, expertise and commitment. It’s a sensational piece of intellectual property that has evolved over the centuries.
(Incidentally, the Kitemark logo is itself one of the world’s first and most enduring quality marks, created in 1903 by the BSI - itself the world’s first national standards body. Look closely and you will see that it’s a combination of the letters B and S - for British Standard. Most of the world’s most influential management systems, such as ISO 9000 family of standards, are based on British standards.)
The weighty advantages of heritage and trust are not the only ones enjoyed by British professional standards.
They are written in the global language of business - English. They are pragmatic in a very British way, being inclusive of local customs and culture and providing principles to which everyone can subscribe and operate. They have provided a sound base from which different societies can develop their own versions. There is no British cookie-cutter. In fact, it’s a very British form of federalism.
Of course, the Commonwealth countries represent the principal area of influence. Membership of chartered institutes is particularly strong in countries such as Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia, India and South Africa.
Yet the chartered status is recognised globally a high standard of excellence. “Employers and students regard our qualification as the most challenging so only the best go for it,” says the ICAEW’s Mark Protherough, “it is the pinnacle.”
So in eastern and central Europe, he says, the ICAEW is actively helping local accountancy associations to promote best practice. “We want to influence in a way that is not trying to compete,” he adds. For the past seven years, there has been a memorandum of understanding between the ICAEW and the Chinese Institute of Certified Public Accountants to award credits toward each other’s qualification. To this day, the ICAEW is the only international institute whose members gain any exemption from CICPA’s exams.
So Britain has an unmatched cohort of bodies and institutions who play a key role in the building of skills and learning across the span of today’s knowledge-based economy. You could easily argue that they represent a force for good in terms of social mobility. Their standards and values are recognised and respected by policy-makers, regulators and businesses around the world.
There’s no global number of chartered members but they are extraordinarily pervasive: there are 227,000 members of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) in 179 countries; there are 115,000 members of the Chartered Insurance Institute in 150 countries. The more specialist institutes with fewer members are just as global: there are 14,000 members of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in 130 countries.
And here’s the kicker. The UK has an extraordinary double whammy advantage of professional development and higher education. It’s a unique synergy, an unbeatable combination. “One of the biggest markets for our ICAEW qualifications are international students studying at UK universities,” observes Mark Protherough.
Educate the world. Professionalise the world. Lead the world in developing the career pathways for billions of people. Set its standards. That’s a powerful mandate and represents a huge opportunity for Britain. It complements very nicely our role as a creative hub.
Right now, we are only scratching at the surface. Most professional bodies have tended to think and act narrowly within their own disciplines. Over the years, specialist groups have spun out of larger institutes to focus on their own particular area of interest; there are now more than 30 engineering bodies. So it’s not in their nature - or, indeed, within the remit of their individual charter - for, say, building surveyors to collaborate and support lawyers.
But such silos are there to be broken. There are some encouraging signs of change.
Individual institutes are working with each other. CMI’s Ann Francke points to its work with CIMA and CIPD on creating “recognised world-class people metrics.” It is a great example of collaboration, she says.
Chartered institutes are also linking up globally within their own profession. Mark Protherough at ICAEW points to the recent Chartered Accountants Worldwide initiative, which brings together several institutes to support, develop and promote the role that Chartered Accountants play throughout the global economy. “This is getting quite some traction,” he says. “We are seeing a groundswell promoting the values and traditions of chartered institutes.”
There’s a facilitation and convening role for Government here. It’s not just about promoting our excellence in education. It’s not just about promoting our excellence in particular professional disciplines. It’s about promoting one of Britain’s real USPs.
As an export proposition, we need a brand under which our great professional institutions and universities can all come together. If Exporting is GREAT, and Innovation is GREAT, maybe so too Professional is GREAT. Or Chartered is GREAT?
This article first appeared in Professional Manager, the magazine of the Chartered Management Institute