Don't you just love being asked at a dinner party what you do? As soon as you say IT, you get written off as a geek. Or even worse, people start to grill you about their latest problem with Vista and their PC at home. And it doesn't help that IT gets such a bad press, with news about massive overruns on large government IT projects and stories like T5 being ground to halt by the computers that control baggage handling.

But perhaps our biggest problem is our reluctance, at least here in the UK, to fully embrace the cause of IT professionalism - something that in my view is a problem not just for IT workers as individuals but for businesses, public sector organisations and CIOs seeking to recruit and retain the best talent. After all, everyone has at least a vague idea of what it means to be a solicitor or barrister in the legal profession or a general practitioner in medicine, but few (even within IT) really understand what the various different qualifications and career grades mean in our profession.

As my colleague John Gillard, who heads our graduate programme, says: ‘I strongly believe that being part of a professional body will be very much the norm for every IT professional in the future. An individual may have worked on 200 successful projects, but without professional qualifications and the support of a professional body, this may become meaningless.'

I might add that Gillard is putting his money where his mouth is by sponsoring around 80 of our current young graduates through group membership of the British Computer Society in a process that requires them to pursue courses leading to BCS examinations and to formal, publicly recognised qualifications.

The need for UK IT to follow the professionalism agenda is surely more acute than ever in today's global economy. If we look at India, for example, we see a wholehearted commitment to professionalism and a total rejection of complacency. The website of India's National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) makes this commitment very clear - including plans to establish twenty Indian Institutes of Information Technology (IIIT) over the next five years on a Public Private Partnership (PPP) basis. Read a recent Capgemini analysis of the role India will play for CIOs.

The good news is that here in the UK, too, much is happening to boost professionalism in IT, and not least some key initiatives from e-skills UK , the employer-led not-for-profit organisation licensed by the government as the Sector Skills Council for Information Technology.

Karen Price, CEO of e-skills UK, says: ‘IT is one of the UK 's most dynamic and innovative sectors. We believe that in order to ensure the UK has, and continues to develop, the IT professional skills it needs to compete on a global stage, it is vital that we achieve three key things:

‘Firstly, that we understand the skills implications of the challenges and opportunities facing the UK . For example, the trend towards global labour sourcing means that the continued growth in the sector in the UK is in highly skilled, multi-disciplinary technology professionals. Secondly, that we all speak the same language when it comes to skills. A common language allows us to recognise the skills a person has, to define the skills they need and to target training spend effectively. Thirdly, that we build on these two to create development programmes that meet the needs of employers and provide clear progression routes for individual IT professionals.

‘The National Skills Academy , due to open later this year, will enable IT professionals to have their skills recognised in a way that is meaningful across the sector. They will be able to find what they need, where and when they need it - and be assured that whatever the Skills Academy offers has been endorsed by employers as valued by the sector. The Academy will include the new e-skills Professional Programme, a flexible, fast-track development scheme that accelerates the business contribution of graduates in the early years of their IT professional careers.'

I applaud Price's views, and endorse the growing attention to professionalism from both personal and business perspectives. But we must also, in my opinion, avoid the ‘closed shop' exclusivity that prevails - sometimes for very good reasons - in other professions.

The market for IT workers, just like the market for IT services, is now a highly globalised one, and in this frantically competitive world we in the UK cannot succeed by equating professionalism with artificial barriers to entry and unrealistically elevated salaries. We must also remember that many of our most important IT pioneers and innovators have been mavericks - original thinkers often lacking the kind of professionalism associated with formal academic studies. I am certain that the IT world will continue to need such people in the future, so whatever we do we must make certain that there is room for them within our profession.

This is the dawning of the age of professionalism, and I hope that CIOs in all sectors will agree with me when I say a big ‘yes' to professionalism, but a big ‘no' to the closed shop.

(Picture with thanks from: Geneva Information)