The future of professions (again?)

In the category of ‘books I wish I had written’, the book that this post is titled for by Richard and Daniel Susskind, father and son, comes very high on the list.

Richard is well known for over 30 years work in IT and the law. Now, with his son, they look at the wider issues for the professions in general covering medicine, law, accounting, and, among others, even religion. Yes it’s true that there is an app to track your sins for confession and various mosques and churches in Second Life.

I had the pleasure of hearing them lead a debate and discussion at the lecture for Laurie Young recently. Many leaders of large professional groups (over 400) were in attendance so the discussions were fascinating.

Yorick Wilkes in a letter to Prospect magazine pointed out that many of the arguments have been made as long ago as the 1970s and 80s. I have written elsewhere about attending a lecture in 1982 on expert systems to be told that there would be an expert system in the boardroom of every Times Top 100 firm within five years.

Technology change often follows a hockey stick model with slow and limited change followed by rapid uptake. A good example can be found with ebooks, where Project Gutenberg started in the 1970s. I saw and handled an e-reader in the early 1990s, yet many people will argue that digital publishing arose in the last decade.

So, while I agree with some of Yorick’s line of reasoning, the timing of this book, the research and the future models outlined make this both a good read and a good starter for strategic planning in professional firms. More widely, within the IT professions, this is incredibly helpful in thinking through the next generation of automation and value creation in the digital economy. The challenge for all of us I feel is whether the hockey stick take off is now. The book provides much evidence that the wealth of examples and similarities across disciplines indicates that change is coming and NOW.

I’ll try to explain my reasoning at this stage.

Roy Amara’s Law can be paraphrased as ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.’

I have a rule of thumb which runs like this: If someone tells you it will take X years, multiply by three, if the impact is supposed to be Y multiply by five.

To illustrate, the forecasts for ecommerce in 1995 for 2000 which drove the dotcom bubble were realised by 2010. Similarly I went to an IBM lecture on personalised medicine in the next decade, driven by data analytics, AI and the like in 1986.

On the impact side, what tends to get missed are the side-effects and unintended consequences of technology change, not just the direct impacts. For instance, if you automate junior jobs, how do you create the experience and expertise to develop the next leaders? Also, technology tends to blur boundaries within and between firms and sectors.

The Susskind’s outline six futures for professions, all of which can co-exist and may well develop in different sectors over time. I find them all plausible and helpful.

What I noted at their session and in other discussions is what I think may be a serious blind spot within many professional firms, related to the blurring challenges.

There is a strong moral aspect of the Susskind’s argument that too many people are denied access to the best professional advice and support on cost grounds (and others) and that in the internet era we can, and should do things differently. That I support.

However, I witnessed a strong tendency to focus on one of the models, which effectively automates within the existing boundaries. Much of the cost and time comes from trying to get professionals to work together.

Let me illustrate. Imagine that you want to build and open a new medical clinic. To achieve this you will need construction (RICS, RIBA...), finance (banking, accounting...), law (solicitors), medical regulations, health and safety just to name a few. Add to that plumbing and the other trades and the potential for delay, cost overrun and frustration is clear. I leave out IT for the immediate discussion but it can’t be ignored either.

IT has the capability to build new niches and new models of organisation. A turnkey solution to ‘build a clinic’ is potentially attractive to a purchaser instead of the multi-professional model of today.

An interesting feature of professional firms is that despite the scale of the sectors, even the largest firms are quite small in global terms compared to many other sectors.

So here is my central view of how the internet will impact on the professional firms. I think that the current models of consolidation within individual disciplines will continue. The days of the small town accountancy or legal firm will go the way of the small shopkeeper facing the rise of the supermarket.

Faced with consolidation and commodification of existing services within individual professions, new multi-professional niches will open up creating value for clients by taking away the pain of today’s working.

I suspect that many of the large firms at the Susskind’s lecture are right to be sceptical, in the short term, of the pace of automation within the professions. However, in the medium term the big challenge to single disciplinary practises will come not from traditional competitors but from new organisations creating value in novel ways across disciplinary boundaries.

The six models that the Susskind’s suggest can support these new niches in interesting ways at different scales. What will determine the pace of these changes? For me the shortage of quality project and programme managers is the time limiting factor.

Who knows more about the impact of skill shortages here better than IT professionals?

About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

See all posts by Chris Yapp
July 2018

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