The future of the professions

Speaking with accountants at CPA Australia conferences earlier in the year, I was struck by the widely-shared anxiety that accountants have about the future of their profession. Australian accountants are concerned about a variety of trends that threaten them with redundancy, including out-sourcing of data processing to low-cost economies such as India, DIY book-keeping using cloud applications such as Xero and MYOB, and advances in artificial intelligence. Hence the interest of many accountants in moving into business advisory and management consulting services.

According to Richard and Daniel Susskind from Oxford University, in their recent book The Future of the Professions, it is not just accountants who should be worried, but all professionals. Technology is affecting all professions in a variety of ways, and the delivery of professional services will be radically different in two to three decades’ time. As noted on the flap of the book cover:

The Future of the Professions explains how ‘increasingly capable systems’—from telepresence to artificial intelligence—will bring fundamental change in the way that the ‘practical expertise’ of specialists is made available in society. The authors challenge the ‘grand bargain’—the arrangement that grants various monopolies to today’s professionals. They argue that our current professions are antiquated, opaque, and no longer affordable, and the expertise of the best is enjoyed only by a few. In their place, they propose six new models for producing and distributing expertise.

The six new models proposed by the Susskinds, which are designed to deliver existing services more economically and more widely through various organisational and technological changes, are referred to by the authors as:

  • networked experts model, in which professionals form virtual teams and are not burdened by the high overheads of traditional professional service businesses;
  • para-professional model, in which a non-expert who deals with a client uses procedures or systems that have been developed by experts;
  • knowledge engineering model, in which “practical expertise is represented in a system that is made available to users as an online service” (p. 221);
  • communities of experience model, in which expertise is crowd-sourced and a Wikipedia of professional knowledge and techniques is continually enhanced;
  • embedded knowledge model, in which professional expertise is embedded within machines, buildings, working practices or even into humans; and
  • machine-generated model, in which, in the most advanced model presented and one in which humans are effectively redundant, practical professional knowledge ends up being developed and delivered by machines.

The Susskinds consider it likely that the greater use of technology will result in unemployment for many current professionals, but the efficiency gains will yield long-term economic benefits. And technological change will result in the creation of new jobs that are required in the new modes of delivery of professional services. The Susskinds note that such jobs might have the labels of para-professionals, knowledge engineers, process analysts, data scientists or systems engineers, for example. That is, we will have fewer professional accountants or lawyers, for example, but more para-professionals to engage with clients on their issues, and more data scientists and systems engineers to make sure the expert systems that solve the clients’ problems are working properly.

The Susskinds rightly encourage current professionals to start preparing for the future now by developing delivery modes for their services that take advantage of the new technologies such as telepresence, robotics, and advances in data mining, AI and expert systems. The six new delivery models the Susskinds have presented provide an excellent starting point for professionals to think about what is possible for their professions.

The Susskinds are very convincing on the point that machines or expert systems can perform many professional tasks as well as or better than human professionals, citing an example that would be very disturbing to US residents who use a lot of pharmaceuticals (on p. 49):

The University of California at San Francisco has a pharmacy staffed by a single robot which has now completed more than 2 million prescriptions without error—on a conservative estimate, US pharmacists make a wrong prescription about 1 percent of the time (equivalent to 37 million mistakes each year).

This is an excellent book which encourages deep reflection by professionals on their current work practices and opportunities for improvement. I would highly recommend it to all professionals.

future_of_the_professions

 The Future of the Professions, by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, is published by Oxford University Press. Copies are available at Dymocks Bookstore on Queen St Mall, Brisbane.

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4 Responses to The future of the professions

  1. Glen says:

    Great post Gene, 20 years ago we all thought the day of the office in the CBD was done and we would all be mobile and running lean operations, it has just taken a bit longer than we thought but I think what your post highlights is the future for many is adaptable micro businesses. It was interesting the group highlighted lawyers and accountants, many I know in both fields say if the Govt abolished family trusts a third of them would be out of business.

    • Gene Tunny says:

      Yes, very good point, Glen. Lawyers and Accountants certainly benefit from government laws and regulations.

      The future for many is definitely adaptable micro businesses, and we will see the gig economy getting larger and larger. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Gene, smart law and accounting firms have to start innovating now. Machines are increasingly displacing knowledge workers in many fields: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-34066941.

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