Prospects for a dark future

Technology poses a threat to professionals’ wealth and value, finds Dialogue expert book reviewer Piers Cain

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The premise of this book is that fundamental and irreversible changes are afoot in the way expertise traditionally provided by the professions is made available to society.

Perhaps more alarming for professionals, the authors predict that the professions as we know them will go the way of the handloom weaver in the Industrial Revolution, blasted away by the forces of technological transformation.

The authors, Richard and Daniel Susskind, have impressive credentials. Professor Richard Susskind is President of the Society for Computers and Law. Daniel Susskind is not only a lecturer in economics at Balliol College, Oxford, but also served as an advisor to the British Government in various capacities, including the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street. So we can rely on the depth of the research supporting this publication – although it is worth noting that the amount of statistical evidence the Susskinds present is surprisingly sparse.

The authors begin by pointing out that although we think we know what we mean by the professions (lawyers, medical doctors, journalists, and so on), they are in fact a somewhat amorphous group that share a family of characteristics – although virtually none of them exhibit all them. The key elements of a profession are:

•       They have specialist knowledge and practical knowhow

•       They will all face a clearance exam before their ingression into a university. I.e., law students prepare for their bar exam after choosing from a website like a course that’d help them clear their entrance exams. And right after the students write the bar exam, they immediately start their CLEP Test Prep

•       Admission depends upon credentials

•       Activities are regulated either by a licence to practise or by means of a code of practice

•       Members are bound by a common set of values

They argue that there are irresistible forces driving change in professional services, the three most important being:

•       Unmanageable increases in the volume of data, transactional information and research findings are making it impossible for humans to keep up – even in highly specialized professional expertise

•       Rising demand is making professional expertise unaffordable to society (for example escalating healthcare costs) and this will force consumers to seek more efficient and cheaper solutions

•       The unstoppable rise in computer processing capacity, IT development and robotics will mean that machines will replace humans in many areas of professional activity

The authors make a convincing case that fundamental change is on the way and provide many examples of how the innovations they predict are already being tried out by early adopters. However, they are careful to avoid making predictions about the timescale or exactly what transformation will look like in any particular profession. Their claim about the direction of travel seems plausible. Yet in some ways the book is closer to a fascinating thought experiment than a work of actionable insights. In other words they are stronger on ‘why’ and ‘how’ rather than on ‘what’ or ‘when’.

Amusingly, the Susskinds point out that the typical reaction of a professional to their thesis is that change is likely – and long overdue – in the professions in general, just not for the specific profession they occupy themselves. For example, how many people feel that the solicitor doing the conveyance on their new home seemed to drag out the process to justify the fee? The professions are not popular and can expect scant sympathy from the public if their jobs disappear or become less lucrative.

So what does it mean for managers and management consultants? The authors point out that strategy firms have already moved much of their routine work offshore and there is a trend towards packaging consultancy products rather than offering a bespoke service. The cost of developing sophisticated analytical systems may squeeze out the smaller players. So, for many professionals, work may become less independent, less of a craft – and possibly less well paid. Change may come more quickly than in other professional areas because, as the authors remark, “the lack of formal boundaries does allow the large consultancy businesses to diversify more radically than other professions may be inclined”. Management consultancies are likely to become enthusiastic adopters of innovation, especially those practices that have adopted results-based contracts (as opposed to charging traditional daily rates) where there will be a financial incentive to find efficiencies.

Although we cannot know the future, it is reasonable to assume that substantial changes to working practices are on the cards in the medium term. Those that have the best chance of prospering will be those who are adaptable – or have skills and attributes that are difficult for a machine to replicate: imagination, creativity, empathy and the ability to lead and motivate people. Fortunately these are the core skills of a good manager.

The Future of the Professions:  How technology will transform the work of human experts 

Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind

Oxford University Press