Professional Values – I Integrity, Competence and Innovation

Integrity is the backbone of all values. But a modern professional is not a monk. He must have the knowledge and competence to deliver results in a highly demanding and competitive environment. But in our present corporate environment, even knowledge is not enough. The new professional has to be creative and innovative.

Key Perspectives

Honesty and transparency, knowledge and competence; innovation.

Honesty and Transparency

Truth is the foundation of all values. Integrity, honesty and transparency are the basis of trust and trust is the source of effective and enduring relationship between people or the customer. So honesty and transparency have to be maintained in every stage, process or activity of the professional work of the engineer like for example procurement of material, relationship with the government, people, worker or the customer or drawing of specification. Any discrepancy or error or lapse in integrity has to be transparently exposed and corrected at the very first occurrence. Honesty and integrity ultimately pays in terms of bottom line result, whatever may be the temporary setbacks. Take for example, the practice of bribing which is a common form of ethical lapse among engineering and contracting firms in their dealing with government agencies. Many professionals justify it by saying that it is necessary and unavoidable in getting things done in government departments. But this state of affairs exists because most of professional organization and individuals have not made any concerted and collective effort to counter it with a persistent will for truth like for example, exerting pressure through professional associations. There are examples to show that when this persistent will not to yield to falsehood is there, then things change. Here are two illustrative examples:

A Civil Contractor, persuaded by his spiritually inclined wife and his Guru, decided not to give bribes and conduct his business with an entire honesty. The initial impact of the decision was negative. His business began to collapse. His financial condition deteriorated. But still he persisted in his resolution to be honest. His reputation for honesty spread in business and government circles. Again he started getting contracts; business flourished and became better than what it was when he was doing it without any scruples.

Another example is from the housing division of a Chennai-based firm well known for its value-based policies. The company was not able to hand over the flats to the customer at the promised date because of prolonged delays in getting sanction for electrical works from the electricity board. The company was determined not to take the easy and customary path of greasing the government officials. The company wrote letters to the authorities of the electricity board and also explained their principled position to the customer. A small group of understanding and sympathetic customers wrote letters to the highest political and government authorities, demanding immediate action. And finally the moral force behind the company’s decision triumphed. The company got the sanction for the electrical works without compromising on its principles.

Knowledge and Competence

But a modern professional is not a cloistered monk or a full-time yogi in an ashram. He is a knowledge-worker who has to deliver results in a highly competitive and demanding corporate environment. So for a professional, honesty is not enough to attain effectiveness. He must have knowledge and competence to deliver results. There are three types of knowledge, which a professional has to possess for achieving effectiveness. The first one is the specialized technical knowledge of the specific professional activity he is engaged in like for example software or telecom or CAD.

The second type of knowledge is a basic understanding of sciences, disciplines or technologies related to the first one. For example a software engineer can enhance his professional effectiveness by studying philosophical, linguistic and mathematical logic, especially the logic of ancient Indian grammarians like Panini. And for building a safe and healthy future world, every professional must have a sound, theoretical and practical knowledge of modern ecology and environmental sciences. The importance of ecological knowledge for engineer, technocrat and the manager is obvious, for decisions on resource allocation and technology have profound ecological implications. Even the finance professional should have some knowledge of ecology to understand the environmental implications of costing or pricing. For example the prices of many products in the market like timber or paper do not reflect the ecological cost of the product in terms of destruction of forests.

The third type of knowledge is a broad and holistic understanding of the higher ideal, values and purpose of the profession. For example, an engineer or technocrats must have some clarity regarding the higher purpose of technology in the evolutionary destiny of humanity and earth. This is something, which is lacking in modern professional work and studies. Here comes the importance of the ancient Indian concept of the Shastra.

In ancient India every professional activity is put under the yoke of the Shastra. A Shastra, in the ancient Indian conceptions is a holistic perspective of a human or cosmic activity, which contains three types of knowledge. First is a spiritual perspective which views the purpose of the activity in the context of the highest spiritual aim of life; second is an ethical or dharmic perspective which elucidates the moral, aesthetic and professional values and standards under which the activity has to be performed; third is the professional perspective which expounds the scientific, technical and skill dimensions of knowledge. Modern professional systems of knowledge would be immensely benefited if they can incorporate this ancient Indian concept of Shastra with suitable modification into their conceptual, educational and executive strategies.

But knowledge remains abstract and ineffective without competence. We may define competence as the ability to apply knowledge to deliver results. Here again there are three types of professional competence. The first one is the technical competence like for example, in solving technical problems or finding new ways to improve the efficiency, economy and productivity of technical systems and process in production. In our present corporate environment economy is an important part of efficiency. The professional has to be cost conscious and cost-effective. He must be able to arrive at the right balance or trade-off between cost, quality, technical excellence and customer satisfaction. We will come to this subject again a little later.

The second type of knowledge is the ability to deliver in time and according to specifications; third are the “soft” management skills in planning, scheduling, time-management, interpersonal relationship, man-management and the ability to focus all our attention on the task or in other words, concentration. So, efficiency, economy, productivity, result-orientation, and management skills are the different facets of competence.

Innovation

In our highly competitive corporate environment it is not enough to have knowledge and competence. A modern professional has to be innovative. In simple terms, innovation means adding or creating something new. There are three types of innovation. First is the incremental innovation in improving the efficiency, productivity, and economy of an existing product, process or service. For example a better lubrication system, which reduces the amount and cost of lubricant and at the same time enhances the efficiency of the machine, is an incremental innovation. As we have indicated earlier this type of innovation is an intrinsic part of the professional dharma of an engineer. The second type of innovation is evolutionary which builds on what is known but at the same time adds significant new value to the process or product. The compact, fuel-efficient and environmental-friendly Japanese cars, which invaded the American, market in the eighties and recently Tata’s Nano are examples of evolutionary innovation. The third type of innovation is the “breakthrough” innovations, which lead to a radically new product or process or technology. Sony’s Walkman, invention of the microchip by Robert Noyce and Kim Philby, fuel cell based vehicles are examples of break-through innovations. Ideally, every professional must constantly strive towards all these three types of innovations. The third type of innovation mostly proceed from individual genius or the collective work of highly qualified and talented scientists and technocrats. But every professional group can and must strive for constant advancement in the first two categories of innovations. Interestingly a school of modern management thought conceives innovation as a continuous and unrelenting quest for the new and better in every activity of the corporate life. For example, a Kito de Boer, a McKinsey consultant states:

“To us at McKinsey, innovation is much more than product development or R&D. Innovation goes to the heart of sustaining corporate advantage through the process of continuous change and renewal. It has far more to do with continually challenging the status-quo and pushing for corporate renewal than it has to do with creativity and ingenuity.”

There is a spiritual element in this McKinsey’s concept of innovation. The Mother of Sri Aurobindo Ashram states, “In works, aspiration for perfection is true spirituality and defines perfection as ‘a constant will for progress in work.’” So, if this constant search for better and for perpetual renewal can be deepened into an attitude of progressive perfection in work and in every activity for its own sake without seeking for any immediate pragmatic result, it can be a source of spiritual progress for the individual and the collectivity. Another important factor to be noted here is that innovation requires something more than knowledge and competence, it requires imagination and intuition. The first type of incremental innovations can be achieved to a certain extent through knowledge and competence. But even here to attain excellence, there must be the ability to look at things from angles, which are different from the routine, customary, and the traditional, which requires imagination. The other two types of innovations require a much greater component of imagination and intuition. So cultivation of these two non-rational faculties has to become an integral part of the education and training programme for professionals.

M.S. Srinivasan

The author is a Research Associate at Sri Aurobindo Society and on the editorial board of Fourth Dimension Inc. His major areas of interest are Management and Indian Culture.

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