Monday, May 7, 2007

Return on Identity

When I last visited the concept of identity in conjunction with the world the Internet has made, it was to explore the pathological implications engendered by that world. I had been reacting against discussions over at confused of calcutta that were trying to resolve the specific pathology of the death threats against Kathy Sierra by reducing them to questions of identity. However, in light of a more recent conversation over the question of how to measure return on investment (ROI) in IT, I realize that the question of professional identity deserves some attention. Since these are thoughts that definitely need "rehearsing" and since JP Rangaswamy seems to have indicated that he expects to find them in my "studio," I shall now try to oblige.

Several years ago Jacques Derrida gave a talk at Stanford that, if memory serves me correctly, was entitled "The Nature of the Profession." Needless to say, he was not talking about IT. However, his exploration of the academic profession (to the extent that I was able to understand it, no easy matter when trying to deal with a Derrida text in "real time") struck me as relevant to the technical world as to his own philosophical and literary domains. With his gift for trying to tease meaning out of the words we use, he left me with a feeling that his major point was our failure to confront one key question regarding the nature of professional behavior: What is the "professional" trying to profess to whom?

Back when the ink was barely dry on my PhD diploma and I was just beginning to hone my polemical skills, I took great interest in the literature that was accumulating in the name of "software engineering." My polemical conclusion at the time was that "computer science" was a smoke-screen to justify creating new academic positions and that, if software development was to "make it" as a profession, it would do so in an environment of apprenticeship, rather than the environment of the college or university. I then admitted that my proposal would most likely be trashed, just because "Master Programmer" would never command the same social respect as "Professor of Computer Science."

I am not sure how much respect "Professor of Computer Science" commands these days; but "Master Programmer" is still out of fashion, perhaps because it has no place on the "career path" that leads to a Chief Information Officer or a Chief Knowledge (shudder) Officer. Nevertheless, even if most of the IT world has chosen to ignore it, it continues to haunt me, now drawing strength from Derrida's question, which may have just originated from playing around with a noun. My point is that, when we start playing fast and loose in our conversations about ROI, we seem to lose sight on the fact that the "investment" is basically a commitment of resources to some "community of professionals;" but that investment is made by investors (call them budget planners, if you prefer) who have a very poor (if any) understanding of what those professionals profess! When he wrote Up the Organization (back before most of my readers were born, I suppose), Robert Townsend called these "professionals" high priests, voice the frustration that just about every senior executive had with the IT department of his (not very many "hers" in those days) enterprise.

These days, as I tried to point out yesterday, we are beginning to recognize that rendering a service differs from producing a widget in some major qualitative ways, even if we cannot always express clearly what those ways are. Continuing in my polemical tradition, yesterday's argument departed from my previous professional framework of the "Master Programmer" and instead explored the proposition that IT management be budgeted as part of Site Services. Put another way, what the IT professional professes is not that different from what the plumber who unclogs the toilets professes; they just render their services over different artifacts!

Is this undermining the identity of the IT profession? As I suggested yesterday, it certainly involved thinking out of a box that most IT people would have preferred to let sit just where it is. However, in a broader sense, that box is the box of the overall world of work; and it is that broader world that demands more scrutiny, particularly where real-world questions of "investment" are concerned. When Derrida chose to talk about "the profession," he exposed just how sloppy we all were every time we invoked that noun (just as I have explored the sloppiness in our use of the noun "content"). His strategy was to get beyond sloppy thinking by stripping the word down to its bare essentials, confronting us with what it was really saying. My argument is that he did not go far enough. Having broken the ground with the noun "profession," it is now time for us to take on the verb "work." It will not be easy; but, unless we are up to the task, the very ways in which money is exchanged over what we do may spiral into meaninglessness as we weave more and more "fictions of convenience" around the investments we make. On the other hand, if we do rise to the occasion, we may also finally resolve the question of professional identity as a corollary of the proposition that "you are what you do."

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