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The future is bright for professionals, but what does it hold for their membership bodies?

27 April 2018

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The future is bright for professionals


The employment of professionals has gone from strength to strength and this growth is projected to continue unabated into the future.  For more than two decades now professionals have constituted the largest occupational group in Australia.  Over the period shown in the chart below, the number of professionals employed has grown at an annual average rate of more than three percent, which compares against a rate of less than two percent for all occupations.  The Victoria University’s Centre of Policy Studies projects that strong professional employment growth will continue into the future.

Not only is the prospect of professionals finding jobs bright, so too is the likelihood of keeping their jobs.  A recent Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre report finds that skilled workers – professionals and managers – buck the national sentiment where most employees feel that their roles have become more precarious.  Precarious employment is measured in terms of job security and control over hours and conditions.  Professionals and managers feel relatively stable in their roles.



It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that a bright future for professionals spells a similarly bright future for their membership bodies.  Reasonable, but naive.


What does the future hold for professional bodies?


Professional bodies around the globe and in all fields are struggling to stay relevant.  Many have witnessed a steady decline in membership numbers over the years, and an increasing tendency for members to not renew.


Between them, expert commentators identify at least seven interlinked forces at play: advancements in technology and communications; generational change; economic growth; time pressures; heightened value expectations; structural change; and increased competition.  The first two come up repeatedly, have had whole books written in their honour, and are discussed further below.  They have both a direct influence on the relevancy of professional bodies and an indirect influence that explains at least some of the other five forces.  I am also presumptuous enough to suggest an eighth force – the changing gender profiles of the professions.


Advancements in technology and communications


The first - advancements in technology and communications – is disrupting the raison d'etre of professional bodies, how they deliver value to members, and how they engage.


To the extent that professional bodies share similarities and roots with what were historically known as guilds, advancements in technology and communications are a major threat.  The word ‘guild’ derives from an Old English word meaning payment or tribute.  Pliers of the craft paid dues to the organisation for the privilege of belonging to it.  Guilds used these dues to, amongst other things, promote the occupations, oversee training and testing and, thereby, safeguard the body of knowledge and skills possessed by their members.  Today the core offerings of a professional bodies continues to be qualifications and designations that verifies the acquisition of technical competencies, and continuous professional development to ensure currency.


For this state of affairs to persist, professional knowledge would need to continue to exhibit at least some of the features of what economists refer to as ‘private goods’.  This is becoming less and less the case.  Arguably professional knowledge is not only non-rival, it is cumulative.  That is, the body of professional knowledge has expanded, not eroded, as more have entered the profession.  Further, with information being only a button click away, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not fruitless, to ‘exclude’ people from outside a profession.  MOOCs, for instance, have made the foundations of some professions free and open to all.  These developments call into question the value add of professional bodies.  The good news, which I will return to, is that there remains scope for professional bodies to build upon professionals’ knowledge foundations.


The other good news is that, while professional bodies share similarities with guilds, they are not and never have been guilds.  Professional bodies have characteristics that set them apart.  Standards of ethics and professionalism matter just as much as technical standards.  And while, like guilds, professional bodies protect the interests of their members, they have an even stronger mandate, in effect a duty, to protect the interests of those professionals serve and of society itself.  Again, this is an important point that is further teased out towards the end.


Changing tack but staying with the impact of technological advancements on content, many will have questioned my optimism in the opening paragraphs to this piece.  Indeed, there are those who would regard professionals as ‘dead men walking’, predicting that computerisation will bring about the deaths of their jobs.  True - it will lead to the demise of some jobs.  Typically, those that can be reduced to algorithms and are repeatable.  However, new jobs will also spawn and grow.  Jobs that rely on the comparative advantages of being human, such as engagement, insight, judgment and creativity.  The challenge for professional bodies will be to design programs that nurture future skills.


Moving on from content, it is now almost cliché to say that technological advancement is disrupting the delivery of teaching and assessment.  It is.  Online and blended modes of teaching, computer-based testing, electronic badging, and other innovations are features of an ever-evolving education landscape.  As the generational profile of learners change (refer next) so too will their expectations.  To listen only to the voices of those comfortable with traditional approaches is a recipe for failure as their voices, while currently loud, will quickly become inaudible.


A final point under this header is that professional bodies should not rely too heavily upon on the networking advantages of belonging to a professional body as a major selling point.  While it is an activity that may result from becoming a member, and an important part of what professional bodies offer, it is not exclusive to professional bodies.  Thanks to digital and social media, people can and do easily find people they want to network with.  If it is simply networking for networking’s sake, they do not need professional bodies to do it for them. 


Generational change


Generational change is not about to happen; it is happening.  Generational change is not something professional bodies can defer thinking about.  Unprecedented change is upon us and it matters from at least two important respects, both of which are evident in the chart below.


The first is that Generation Y already represents that largest generation in the professional workforce.  It is too easy to slip into language and refer to them and Generation Z as the ‘next generation.’  They are the ‘Now Generation.’  This is my term and I am sticking with it, because it hammers home an important point.


The second is that for the first time ever the professional workforce comprises five generations.  Five generations with different life experiences, values and expectations coexisting in the same workplaces and spaces (both physical and virtual) and engaging with each other, clients and stakeholders.  That has got to be a challenge not only for organisations but for professional bodies.  Even if they do not yet know it.





Generational change is even more pronounced in some professions than others.  The table below captures calculations of the generational shares for selected professions.  More than half of Sales, Marketing and Public Relations Professionals belong to Generations Y and Z.  Half of Engineering Professionals are from these generations.  And the shares for Accountants and ICT Professionals are not far behind.

Once a biological concept, ‘generations’ is now best understood as a sociological concept: a generation refers to a cohort of people born within a similar span of time who are shaped by the events, trends and developments of that time.  This, in turn, influences their expectations of professional bodies.  


The following is an attempt at a broad and fleeting characterisation of the generations and carries with it all the caveats and risks of generalisations, oversimplifications and exaggerations.  As a member of one of the older generations some of it even makes me cringe (although I suspect I was born in the wrong generation).  Nevertheless, it serves to carry my key message: what has worked for professional bodies in the past for membership attraction and retention cannot be relied upon into the future.  Relevancy is generational specific.


The Builders lived through a War and the Depression.  They are stoic, patriarchal, and regarded their jobs as jobs for life.  They are loyal to their professional bodies.


The Baby Boomers grew up in a time of affluence and were reared to pursue their dreams.  From their jobs they seek promotions.  Opportunities to lead and leave a legacy are their motivations for remaining with their professional bodies.


Generation X lived through the stock market crash and a recession.  They are loyal to their professions but not to their employers.  Their motivation in joining professional bodies is the opportunities membership provides to furthering their careers.


The experiences of the Now Generation of professionals – Generations Y and Z – are fundamentally different.  They have grown up in the digital and networked world we have just spoken of.  They are not the doomsayers predicting job death through technological and communications advancements.  They view technology as an enabler in their roles and an essential means for engaging and collaborating.


The Now Generation will not only change jobs on a more frequent basis, but industries, careers and countries.  They are entrepreneurial and may hold multiple jobs, and/or freelance in the ‘gig’ economy.  Work may not be nine to five at a set workplace.  Ideally work fits in around family, social and other commitments.  Aided by technology, work may occur anytime day or night, and anywhere. 


The idea of transactional membership of a professional body holds no appeal.  Membership must deliver value.  Value from membership comes from learning and making a difference.  Learning aids their job mobility, progression, agility and entrepreneurial endeavours.   Making a difference plays to the heightened social conscience of the Now Generation.  It aligns with the duty of professional bodies to protect the public interest, and extends that duty beyond protection to advancement.


The Now Generation will question the relevancy of professional bodies whose benefits of membership have varied little from the traditional.


Changing gender profiles


At the aggregate level it would appear that there has been little change in the gender balance of the professions.  This is because the entry of more males into historically female dominated professions, such as teaching and nursing, is masking the change in the other direction in the historically male dominated professions.  The table below illustrates the change over a ten year horizon for the same professions as those selected and considered earlier.

Working through each of these professions in turn, more than 100 years ago, in 1915, Mary Addison Hamilton (appropriately nicknamed Addie) was admitted to full membership of an Australian professional accounting body, which was later to become known as CPA Australia.  Not only was Addie the first female accounting professional in Australia, but first in the British Empire.  Two censuses ago men continued to outnumber women in the profession in Australia, but only just.  By the last Census the balance had tipped in favour of the ladies.


Any fan of Mad Men will appreciate the significance of the proportions in the table above for Sales, Marketing and Public Relations Professionals.  Recall the stir when Don Draper promoted his Secretary, Peggy Olson, to Junior Copywriter just before Thanksgiving in 1960?  Yes, we are talking fiction.  But a fiction true to its times.  More than half a century later, as at the last Census, in Australia there were just as many Mad Women as there were Mad Men.


The contrast is Engineering and ICT Professionals which remain fiercely male dominated.  Engineering, particularly so.  But at least there is some movement.  For ICT Professionals gender shares have remained rigidly unchanged over the decade.  I am now all the more proud of my daughter who successfully lobbied for the post of Year 4 eLearning Leader at her primary school.


Both the changing and unchanging gender profiles of the professions call into question the responsiveness of the member benefits, advocacy, activities and marketing of professional bodies.


Enhancing relevancy

In this changing context how can professional bodies not merely survive, but thrive?  How do they maintain and enhance their relevancy?

‘Do nothing’ is not an option, as it will guarantee that professional bodies will quickly become irrelevant, of little value to their changing membership, leading to their inevitable demise.

The advice here is not just to ‘do something’ but to do some big things!  Indeed, do six big things: overhaul governance; invest for success; be member centric; give away knowledge and facilitate learning; sell outcomes, not activities; and make a difference.  I will not pretend that these are original ideas.  In truth, none of them are.  However, the fact that others have advocated for them before me serves only to make these six big things more, not less, important.

Overhaul governance

The first big idea is to overhaul governance.  This tops the list of radical changes proposed by consultants, Harrison Coerver and May Byers, in their book, Race for Relevance.  They rightly point to the risk of ‘social loafing’ of large boards as board members fail to take on responsibility and rely on others to take the lead.  Large boards with representation allocated to special interests or constituencies raise issues of parochial views, and director quality.

The ideal proposed here are small boards comprising of no more than five or six members and the CEO in an ex officio capacity.  This leaves no room for loafing.  And, if selected on the basis of competencies, such as strategic thinking, digital foresight and financial acumen, these boards can be active and effective in setting and monitoring the vision, strategies, activities and finances of their professional body.  Board members can rise above the narrow-mindedness of their predecessors and competently act in the collective interest of all.

Small competency-based boards are better able to engage with the executive of their professional bodies as their size facilitates more intimate relations, and their competencies, enable more informed questioning, discussions and decisions.

Invest for success

This is not meant as a cliché.  It is meant as a paradigm shift.  That is, a shift away from the annual preoccupation of professional bodies with costs to a longer time horizon and focus on investing for future success. 

Short termism and a focus on costs risks missed opportunities to enhance relevancy and stay ahead of the game.  Too often this manifests in an underinvestment in technology.  This is at odds with the Now Generation’s expectation that technological competency is a given.  It is a threshold expectation, not merely a nice to have.  Investments in technology need to be prioritised and properly resourced. 

The suggestion in the governance discussion above, that one of the competencies on a small board should be digital foresight, was deliberate.  What is needed is someone who can look to the future and be impatient for change.  The strategy of waiting for the last luddite to emerge from his cave and plug in his computer risks disenfranchising the more progressive members in the Now and other generations.

That said, in a world where digital transformation is a given what will distinguish professional bodies?  This is where the other five big things come in.

Be member centric

Readers from some professional bodies may scoff that member centricity is nothing new and that of course everything they do is in members’ interests.

However, given the conversations above, do membership bodies have a deep understanding of what their members value?  Are they alert to the differences between their members from different generations?  Or from their male and female members?  It might not be as simple as running women only events.  Or it might be.  But have professional bodies asked?  Do they make an effort to solicit members’ views through channels that reach the different cohorts? 

And, even if the answers to all of these questions are 'yes', is best use made of that information?  Is it shared with the board?  Does it inform a member centric vision and strategy, segmented by generational and gender profiles?  Importantly, is it changing what professional bodies do on the ground and how they engage?

Give away knowledge and facilitate learning

I am just over six months into starting my policy and strategy consultancy.  Wise commentators and mentors and have counselled that I should give away my intellectual property.  My initial reaction was, of course, calm and measured (not!):  Are you fricken kidding me?!  That is what I am selling.  How on earth am I expected to make a buck?  But here I am quite deliberately penning this piece and making it available at no cost for the world to see.  I am giving away my intellectual property.

Why?  Because what I am sharing with you is what I know and, quite obviously, some strongly held opinions.  What I am not sharing with you is how I have come to know these things or become so opinionated.  If I can manage to convince you that I am someone able to logically and intelligently process and analyse information and come up with some interesting and valuable perspectives then you might just want to engage me (refer below for my contact details!).

The same applies for professional bodies.  As I argued above, the foundation knowledge of the professions is becoming increasingly accessible to all.  So why not accept this and make it free?  As I have already established, the competitors of some professional bodies are doing it already.  They are establishing their credentials, making it more likely that prospective professionals will turn to them and pay for more advanced learnings.

‘More advanced learnings’?  What am I talking about?  Knowledge is one thing.  Knowing through learning is quite another.  It is the result of the application of knowledge.  It is evidenced through the analysis of complex problems and the exercise of sound argument, logic and judgement.  These are the expectations of professional level learnings and professional development.  They are the expectations of national tertiary regulators and of the international organisations that professional bodies are a part of.  Importantly, learning is high on the list of what the Now Generation values and expects.

Sell outcomes, not activities

Above I was deliberately a tad provocative, arguing that if the networking opportunities provided by professional bodies are simply for networking’s sake, members do not need professional bodies to do it for them.  The Now Generation, in particular, are natives in today’s digital and connected world.

This, however, is not the same as saying that professional bodies should put an end to their networking activities.  Particularly not if they serve a unique and positive purpose that others would struggle to replicate with the same success.  It is the outcomes of professional bodies’ networking activities that members value, it is not the networking per se.  For instance, if networking provides a passport for professional career success then that is what professional bodies should promote and sell to their members.  In other words, they should sell the outcomes of networking, and not the mere the activity of networking.

The same applies for other professional body activities, whether it be professional level studies or conferences and seminars.  Particularly when there is no shortage of competitor events.  Members can afford to be choosy in order to gain greatest advantage from their scarce time.   An outcome of a seminar could be an exclusive learning opportunity, or contributing to the collective wisdom of attendees on an issue of professional and public importance that is captured and disseminated to a broader audience.  Which provides a convenient segway to the last my the list of six big things.

Make a difference

I have saved the best to last.  Or, at least, it is my favourite.  As a policy and strategy consultant it is what motivates me.  It is why I have ventured out on my own, as it creates the prospect and space to focus my efforts on what makes a positive difference.  This is my passion.  I already told you: I was born into the wrong generation.

This is the expectation and the driver of the Now Generation.  They are unwilling to commit their time to engage in professional bodies’ governance structures or activities unless they judge both as making good use of their scarce time.  They are not interested in being part of a professional body unless it delivers value.  Value to not only them personally, but to what they judge to be important more broadly. 

Most professional bodies are active in the public policy debate, advocating on behalf of their professions and the broader public interest.  Many are also thought leaders.  This is a natural fit for professional bodies as their staff and their membership are, by definition, experts in their fields.  They are trusted sources who move and inspire people with innovative ideas and opinions.  These are activities that can make a positive difference.  The policy, advocacy and thought leadership roles played by professional bodies should be elevated in their conversations with current and future members.

So too should the more hands on roles they are playing.  A great example is CPA Australia’s and Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand’s joint initiative, Indigenous Accountants Australia, which is designed to address the dramatic under-representation of Indigenous Australians in the profession.  It is significant because two fierce competitors have put their differences to one side to work together to address a higher order need.  There will be other examples from other professions where they are likewise either directly or indirectly involved (through sponsorship or other support) in initiatives that deliver public value.  The trick will be to find ways to involve membership.

So, there you have it.  The future is bright for professionals.  Whether it is similarly bright for their professional bodies is entirely up to those bodies; whether they are bold enough to do big things and be relevant.

Mary Clarke


DXP Consulting

M: +61 401 088 571




  1. Agarwal, N and Islam, M (2016) “How can professional associations continue to stay relevant? Knowledge Management to the rescue,” Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology, Volume 53, Issue 1.

  2. See, for example, Sladek, S (2011) The End of Membership as We Know It, which identifies the first three forces of change, and Coerver, H and Byers, M (2011) The Race for Relevance, which has a longer list containing the first two and last four mentioned forces.

  3. Sussking, R and Sussking, D (2015) in The Future of the Professions explores the transformative impact of technology.  And the primary focus of Sladek, S (2011) op cit is on generational change.

  4. For example, ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) makes introductory accounting courses freely available online through the edX.  See

  5. Cooper, K and Kurtovic, A (2006) “Mary Addison Hamilton, Australia’s First Lady of numbers,” Accounting & Finance Working Paper 06/19, School of Accounting & Finance, University of Wollongong.

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