Thursday, December 13, 2007

There's Professionalism and Professionalism and Professionalism

I can't spill the details, but I am reading through some materials in a court case for a large client. The questions put to me are about the standards in the industry. In particular, what are the professional standards in our industry?

Maybe it's a coincidence that they chose me to talk about this. But it turns out to be one of my pet peeves (oh, you hadn't guessed?).

There are layers of competence.

The classic layers are:

Unconscious Incompetence
- (you don't even know what you don't know)

Conscious Incompetence
- (you are aware of what you don't know)

Consciously Competent
- (you know what you know and what you don't know)

Unconsciously Competent
- (you know this so well you can do it in your sleep)

I'm not sure where this originated. After I first read it, I looked for sources. I can find this discussion a lot, but not sure who to credit with the original formulation.

Anyway, there are obviously many steps missing in that process. Here are some that are relevant to our business:

Safe Zone One:
- Incompetent and not interested (with luck, this is a client!)

Danger Zone One:
- Incompetent and interested (least dangerous)
- Incompetent and think you're competent
- Incompetent and think you're really good (most dangerous)

- Competent enough to convince someone to hand you a check
- Competent enough to fix the same problem twice
- Competent enough to realize you need to know more

Early Professional:
- Realize there are areas of competence and incompetence
- Define areas of competence and capitalize on them
- Begin to safely expand areas of competence (one job at a time)

Danger Zone Two:
- Take on any job no matter the level of competence
- Present yourself as an expert in areas you don't remotely understand
- Actively deceive people about your abilities and facilities

- Completely aware of areas of competence and incompetence (focus on areas of competence)
- Invest in moving up to the next level (books, training, conferences, pro groups, etc.)
- Standardize procedures and take pride in doing things "the right way"

Seasoned Professional:
- Only work in areas of competence
- Gain competence where needed (and only sell once competent)
- "Live" in a world where competence and high standards are simply assumed to be part of what you do

Danger Zone Three:
- Very competent in some areas, but unethical in business practices
- Actively deceive clients and non-clients (e.g., take money and don't deliver service)
- Unwilling to admit areas of incompetence, and willing to accept money for any job

Note, please, that this is not a nice, linear progression. Somewhere along the line, people choose to be good (professional) or evil (danger zone). Unfortunately, you can't tell good and evil at a glance. That comes with experience over time.

Let's just look at the good (professional) track. Here your basic progression is

Danger Zone One
Early Professional
Seasoned Professional

There's plenty of discussion about where the SMB community fits on some "competence scale." I often use the line that some technicians got into this business because they know more about computers than anyone they know. For most people, that's not very much knowledge. This danger zone isn't evil unless they choose to stay there.

The SMB space has more than it's share of Beginners and Early Professionals. That's the nature of the beast. After all:
1) The barriers to entry are low
2) As people move up the professional scale, they leave smaller (easier) jobs behind
3) Beginners are willing to work for less and many SMB clients aren't willing to pay for competence and professionalism

The Really Good News is that professionalism in the SMB space has expanded dramatically in the last few years. With books by Harry Brelsford, Beatrice Mulzer, Janet Ruhl, Erick Simpson, Eriq Neale, and others, we actually talk about this stuff! Then you add the rantings of Vlad Mazek, Chris Rue, Jeff Middleton, Susan Bradley, and dozens of others. If you look at the SMB blogs, web sites, news groups, and boards, it's awesome how much we discuss professionalism and the right way of doing things.

So while we'll always be overloaded with Beginners and Early Professionals, our space is finally reaching the point where we are professionals. We have professional associations (ICCA, SMBTN, Mobi, IAMCP, ASCII, etc.). From time to time we even discuss licensing boards and the "next" step in professionalism.

From time to time I lament the fact that there's so much un-professionalism in our space. I need also to celebrate the fact that we have so much professionalism.

And we're heading in the right direction.

2008 will be a great year.

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