At the recent Professional Marketing Forum conference (I wrote a review for the magazine which was published on 1st November) futurologist Chris Yapp gave his view on the future of professional firms.

He referred to the recent research by Deloitte/Oxford University which focused on the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and robots to show how disruption could impact the professions.

He reminded us that the construction industry is constrained by a lack of skilled workers and Will Hutton’s finding that only three firms produce over a 100 patents a year. He talked about 3D printing technology that allows a bridge to be built in a day.

He talked about the need for T-shaped workers who have both breadth of capabilities and deep functional expertise and commented “Any lawyer that could be replaced by a robot, should be replaced by a robot”. He also referenced Amara’s law that states “we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long term”. (This is a theme I explored with Anthony Slumbers recently in a report for The Lawyer magazine on lawyer’s use of real estate and future office trends).

His breathless presentation then moved on to economics with talk of bubbles (installation and deployment phases) and Golden Ages with the reassuring words that “There’s a Golden Age coming but there’ll be a recession beforehand”.

Looking to the future he considered how technology innovation leads to social innovation – citing the creation of the Open University as a new model of education. He shared a chart with strategic response and reactive on one axis and structural and cyclical change on the other and considered the different strategies firms adopt. Another model looked at mapping change and risk and identified strategies of “something will turn up”, “business as usual”, “baby steps” and “entrepreneurial disrupter” depending on their attitude to risk.

There was mention of the International Futures Forum and the three horizons in the present urging us to “look for the pockets of the future in the present”. During my MBA we called this scanning for weak signals.

I was encouraged when he summarised with determinants of success for professional firms of 2020 as:

  • Quality of the client list
  • Quality of relationships
  • More strategic focus vs transactional
  • New models of governance: openness to new ideas
  • Rethinking recruitment and development

During the question session he suggested that marketers need not be replaced by robots if they developed different skills sets. He also indicated that there needed to be a more joined-up approach to providing professional advice – recalling a situation where a copyright document for 3D printers needed 10 different disciplines.

Returning to his theme of recruitment he talked about the need for “permeable boundaries” and to avoid professionals being “drawn from too narrow a base”. He dismissed the concept of a generation gap by suggestion that those who were 25 years old and those who were 55 years old should mentor each other as it was those in the middle whose life situations made them likely to be more risk averse.

When asked whether the partnership model hindered adaption to the changes he said that while decision making is affected, two firms present at the conference used scenario planning to understand the impact of future trends on their own business and those of their clients. He was positive in suggesting that “advisory services will grow” as clients want advisers who have a track record in producing good ideas.

It’s interesting to compare his views against those futurologists I’ve written about before – Ian Pearson and Peter Dixon and Gerd Leonhard