There is a view amongst some professionals that talking about the disruption of the professions by the application of technology is scaremongering by people with a vested interest to sell products and services. It is true that there are some pretty wild statements being made by some people, but here’s the thing. I genuinely believe we are going to have massive change in the professions and this book written by Richard and Daniel Susskind presents a sound case as to why that is.

I’m sure the first sentence in the introduction is designed to get the reader’s attention and that it does.

“This book is about the professions and the systems and people that will replace them.”

Wow!

The rest of the first paragraph is worth quoting too:

“Our focus is on doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants, tax advisers, management consultants, architects, journalists, and the clergy (amongst others), on the organizations in which they work, and the institutions that govern their conduct. Our main claim is that we are on the brink of a period of fundamental and irreversible change in the way that the expertise of these specialists is made available in society. Technology will be the main driver of this change. And, in the long run, we will neither need nor want professionals to work in the way that they did in the twentieth century and before.”

This is certainly a bold statement and in the seven chapters of this book the authors present their case in what I conclude to be a very sound manner. They don’t predict a “big bang” occurring but rather incremental change in how expertise is produced and distributed and which will eventually lead to the dismantling of the traditional professions.

Early on the authors note that one of the fundamental features of the professions is the role they play in helping other human beings to deal with the challenges of life. As an individual you cannot know everything you need to know to navigate life’s journey so specialists assist you. They look at the history of the professions and how they have developed to take the special place in society that they do. However, they are somewhat critical, suggesting that access to their expertise is beyond the reach of many people and the quality of services delivered is not always up to scratch.

A key part of the book for me is the identification by the authors of three biases in respect of technology which they believe inhibit professionals from thinking clearly about their future. There are:

  1. Irrational Rejectionism “…the dogmatic dismissal of a system with which the sceptic has no direct personal experience. Often with arms folded, a professional will reject proposals for systems without seeing them in action or listening carefully to what is on offer. Difficulties are quickly noted and applications swiftly discarded. A variant of this rejectionism is an old chestnut – the suggestion that the system in question would work well in other disciplines but not in the sceptic’s own.”
  2. Technological myopia “..the tendency to underestimate the potential of tomorrow’s applications by evaluating them in the terms of today’s enabling technologies.”
  3. AI (artificial intelligence) fallacy “…the mistaken supposition that the only way to develop systems that develop tasks at the level of experts or higher is to replicate the thinking processes of human specialists.”

In the second chapter the authors run through many of the individual professions and look at the developments in the use of technology that have already occurred. In medicine, some of the change is just staggering. For example, a university pharmacy that is staffed by a single robot which has dispensed more than 2million prescriptions without error, against a typical mistake rate of 1%. For accountants they focus on tax and audit work and highlight significant developments already in the ability of people to lodge a tax return without the involvement of a professional – 48 million tax returns done this way in the USA in 2014. They also note developments in having tax planning done by machines, which makes sense because it is really just the reverse of doing the compliance work – same set of rules applied. The authors quote seemingly credible research done by themselves and others across the broad spectrum of the professions to show that the change train has already well and truly left the station. (My words not theirs!)

Chapter 3 continues the review of the professions but goes beyond just the technology and identifies eight broad patterns and/or trends. There are:

The end of an era

  • The move from bespoke service
  • The bypassed gatekeepers
  • Shift from reactive to proactive
  • The more for less challenge

Transformation by technology

    • Automation
    • Innovation

Emerging skills and competencies

    • Different ways of communicating
    • Mastery of data
    • New relationships with technology
    • Diversification

Professional work reconfigured

    • Routinization
    • Disintermediation and reintermediation
    • Decomposition

New labour models

    • Labour arbitrage
    • Para-professionalization and delegation
    • Flexible self employment
    • New specialists
    • Users
    • Machines

More options for recipients

    • Online selection
    • Online self help
    • Personalization and mass customisation
    • Embedded knowledge
    • Online collaboration
    • Realization of latent demand

Preoccupations of professional firms

  • Liberalization
  • Globalization
  • Specialization
  • New business models
  • Few partnerships and consolidation
  • Demystification

The subheadings give you a feel for the ideas of each pattern/trend, but you need to read the book to get a full understanding.

In chapter 4 the authors look at the dominant means by which information is stored and communicated (which they call information substructure) and the impact that technology is having on this. They note, quite reasonably it seems to me, that the move from print based industrial society into a technology based internet society will have as big an impact as the dawning of the print era. And they identify four main developments in information technology that will drive this:

  1. Exponential growth in information technology
  2. Increasingly capable machines
  3. Increasingly pervasive devices
  4. Increasingly connected humans

Chapter 5 starts with consideration of the economic characteristics of knowledge, or what the authors term “practical expertise”. These characteristics are important as they are part of what is allowing significant change to unfold.

“In summary, knowledge has four special characteristics. It is non-rival, in that the use of it does not diminish what is left for others. It has a tendency towards non-excludability, in that it is difficult to prevent non-payers from using it. It is cumulative, in that its use and reuse in turn gives rise to new knowledge. And it is digitizable, in that we can often turn it in to machine processable bits.”

The authors then consider how effective the professions are at producing, capturing, nurturing and reusing their knowledge within their own organization. And most importantly they look at whether there may be different or better ways of curating knowledge that don’t directly involve the traditional professions.

The authors propose a model to explain the evolution of professional work and it recognises the increasing commoditization of much of it. (They identify quite rightly that term has been used a lot and often with negative connotations, but note that from the point of view of the consumer of professional services this is mostly a good thing.)

The model shows the shift from the traditional craft model to what they term externalization

Craft -> Standardization -> Systemization -> Externalization

Externalization contains “Charge online”, “no charge online” and “commons” and is the point at which practical expertise is made available to non-specialists online.

The move from Craft to Externalization brings a reduction in cost to reproduce practical expertise.

As part of their consideration the authors identify seven possible models for the production and distribution of practical expertise:

  1. Traditional model
  2. Networked experts model
  3. Para-professional model
  4. Knowledge engineering model
  5. Communities of experience model
  6. Embedded knowledge model
  7. Machine generated model

In chapter 6 the authors deal with a range of objections and anxieties that arise from the change in the professions. These include:

  • Trust and quasi trust
  • The moral limits of markets
  • Lost craft
  • Personal interaction
  • Empathy
  • Good work
  • Becoming an expert
  • No future roles

The final chapter brings together the authors thoughts to reiterate their main themes.

“In relation to our current professions, we argue that the professions will undergo two parallel sets of changes. The first will be dominated by automation. Traditional ways of working will be streamlined and optimized through the application of technology. The second will be dominated by innovation. Increasingly capable systems will transform the work of professionals, giving birth to new ways of sharing practical expertise. In the long run this second future will prevail, and our professions will be dismantled incrementally……..For the professions, there is no way of softening the blow. Decades from now, today’s professions will play a much less prominent role in society.”

Richard and his son Daniel are very credible writers on this subject. Richard has been at the forefront of the application of technology in the legal profession and more broadly for over 30 years and written a number of books and articles in this area. Daniel is a lecturer in Economics at Oxford and studied there and at Harvard. Both have held senior advisory positions for the UK government and Richard was awarded an OBE. These are not light weights! They understand the value of research and it comes through in this book.

This book tackles complex issues and is not what I’d call an easy read.

It is however a must read.

I’ve given you a taste, but you really should have the full experience for yourself.

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