The information age appears to have had three phases thus far. The first phase started with the invention of the printing press where documents could be mass-produced. The second phase occurred with the establishment of public libraries that made information available to the public. The third and current phase started with the Internet. The Internet has made it possible for laypersons with access to a computer to conduct research on many topics without being a specialist in that area.
There are computer programs that are written for laypersons, which allow them to diagnose themselves and prescribe a form of treatment. There are also computer programs that can provide laypersons with limited accounting, legal, and architectural services. Following the introduction of such programs, some futurists suggested that this trend would lead to a significant reduction in the number of professional persons required. Approximately twenty years later, this prediction has not yet come to pass.
Access to information can allow laypersons to communicate sensibly with practising professionals. However, it does not adequately prepare laypersons to accept the liabilities that are associated with making professional decisions. Professionals are prepared through their experience. Their main asset is their practical knowledge of, and confidence in the industry’s international standards.
Industry standards are sometimes determined from the results of academic research work carried out at universities where various materials and methods are tested. Researchers gain confidence in their research when repeated experiments can give results that they can predict.
Once the researcher’s confidence is sufficiently high due to consistent predictable results, field trials are typically performed outside of the relatively sheltered confines of the university. The risks to human health, property, and the environment from field trials can be acceptable if a sufficient number of predictable academic laboratory tests were carried out. The results of both the academic tests and field trials are published and reviewed by qualified persons. If they pass this scrutiny, and if the results are of sufficient value to the industry, then they can be incorporated into the industry’s standards.
Industry standards are essentially principles of materials and methods that should generally be followed by practitioners. Persons who offer professional services to the public are practitioners. If a practitioner’s compliance with an industry standard does not provide the expected results, then that information is relayed to the publisher of the standard, and that standard may be changed.
Research work on new materials and methods within each professional discipline is ongoing, which leads to changes to industry standards. It is therefore necessary that practising professionals continue to develop professionally by understanding and using current industry standards. This is important since previous industry standards may have been found to be substandard, or not applicable to a particular environment.
One of a professional’s major objectives is to ensure the safety of the public and the environment, and thus reduce their own personal risk. While practising a professional discipline, mistakes can very easily be made. Therefore, new university graduates are not allowed to practise independently until after they have received up to, and sometimes in excess of 4 years of supervised training. This helps to significantly reduce the risks to the public of receiving substandard professional services. However, even after persons have become qualified to practise independently, it is always prudent for them to have their work reviewed by senior professionals in their field.
Given the legal and technical risks involved in professional practises, and the laypersons’ unpreparedness to manage any liability if their decisions result in damage, unqualified persons should not be allowed to offer their services to the public. However, with knowledge of various industry standards becoming more readily available to the public, the public has a right to comment on or query any aspect of a professional’s work that does not appear to comply with the industry standards.
Some professionals feel threatened when laypersons seek additional information about the service for which they are paying, and can be dismissive as they try to avoid answering pertinent questions that can reveal their unpreparedness. The queries and challenges posed by the public should prompt professionals to continue their professional development.