Thought leadership lecture for Laurie Young – The future of the professions

Posted on: February 3, 2016

On Monday evening I attended the Inaugural Lecture for Laurie at Allen & Overy’s offices where there main speakers were Richard Susskind and his son Daniel. James Luke from IBM was also interviewed and there was a panel discussion with representatives from Allen & Overy, The Law Society, the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW) and financial services firm Arden.

Richard Chaplin opened the event – attended by 400 people – by advising us that it was the largest ever gathering of the management teams of the professions (which is the largest sector in the UK). Paul Young, Laurie’s son, made a brief statement on behalf of his family. 

Future of the professions

The talk was based on the Susskind’s latest book http://www.susskind.com/ (which involved eight professions in 100 interviews and 800+ sources) and organised around seven themes which they tackled expertly as a double act. I’ve tried to synthesise the key points: 

Futures

Two future scenarios for the professions were outlined:

  1. Reassuringly familiar but much more efficient
  2. Increasingly capable machines displacing the work of the traditional professions

There was an interesting discussion around “Why do we have the professions?” which considered that no-one can know everything and that humans have limited understanding. The professions were seen as a solution to provide practical expertise for a print-based industrial society and as gatekeepers to a body of knowledge.

But “the professions are creaking” in a technology-based Internet society where they appear “unaffordable, antiquated and opaque”. So the question was framed as “Can we solve the problem differently?”.

At the vanguard

A number of examples were considered where professional service firms were leading the way including:

  • HarvardX – received more sign-ups in a year than the entire attendance of the historical student population
  • Khan Academy – 10 million unique visitors a month
  • WebMD – 190 million users each month
  • FDA
  • Huffington Post – on its sixth anniversary it had more subscribers than the New York Times which is 164 years old
  • Bleacher Report
  • Associated Press (AP)
  • Ebay – Solving millions of disputes each year through on-line mediation
  • LegalZoom.com – Best legal brand in the US
  • Turbotax by Intuit
  • HMRC – “Connect” system to detect fraud
  • Architect firms who:
    • Used 1500 bricks and drones to construct a building
    • Printed the parts of an entire building
  • Accenture – Has recruited 750 hospital nurses
  • Deloitte – Has its own university in Texas for its 200,000 employees
  • An Anglican cathedral on virtual reality world SecondLife and an app to prepare for Catholic confession

Trends and evolution

They have identified eight patterns and 30 trends and each profession shows at least 15 of the trends. Some of these trends include:

  • A move from bespoke services
  • Decomposition – disaggregating services into component tasks
  • Routinisation
  • Evolution

Susskind’s original model has evolved and now has the following stages:

  • Craft
  • Standardisation
  • Systemisation
  • Externalisation through:
    • Charging for on-line services (e.g. Allen & Overy’s service generating £10-£12m)
    • No charge on-line services
    • Commons

Technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Technology continues to accelerate:

  • Exponential growth (Moore’s Law)
  • Increasingly capable
  • Increasingly pervasive
  • Increasingly connected

The big trends in technology are:

  • Big data
  • Problem solving
  • Affective computing (detecting and expressing human emotions)
  • Robotics

By 2020, the average desktop computer will have the same processing power as all mankind. By 2012, machines will have the same speed as humans. Closed and open social networks were explored as well as crowdsourcing platforms.

Two waves of artificial intelligence were considered:

  • 1986-1988 The creation of expert systems using decision-trees which was expensive
  • From 1998 – following IBM’s Big Blue beating chess master Kasparov and the recognition of the “AI fallacy” (that machines should replicate the thinking processes of humans).

Jobs

While most people wondered whether there would be jobs left for the professions, the Susskinds pointed to the jobs that would be created in the medium term that machines couldn’t perform.

The merits of the optimists (there will be jobs) and the pessimists (there won’t be jobs) were examined as well as the “lump of labour” fallacy. The focus should therefore be on tasks rather than jobs and skills such as creativity, empathy and judgement. However, there was a view that there would be steady decline in jobs in the professions.

Expertise

The challenge will be how to produce and distribute practical expertise in society. The traditional model is that of the professions, but the Susskinds suggested other models such as:

  • Networked experts
  • Para-professionals
  • Knowledge engineers
  • Community of experience
  • Embedded knowledge
  • Machine-generated model

Morality

There was a bit of diversion into what sort of future we want and a consideration of what ought not to be handled by machines.

 

There was much food for thought from the interview with IBM. The panel discussion raised a number of interesting points, not least:

  • Medium sized firms are likely to face the biggest challenges – especially compliance oriented services
  • There will be a greater need for innovation – and this ability is greater in non-law firms
  • There are both utopian and dystopian views of how technology will affect our lives
  • We are likely to see major brands emerge who can cope with the march of technology
  • The Law Society recently published “The future of Legal Services” https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/news/press-releases/future-of-legal-services—press-release/
  • 21% of solicitors work in-house
  • We should consider “What business are we in?” (remember Marketing Myopia where the rail industry should have recognised that it was in the transportation industry)
  • Firms need to access and/or allocate money to invest in experimentation and research and development (R&D)

There is also a blog on Laurie Young thought leadership award event (July 2014) which may be of interest – http://kimtasso1.wpengine.com/steve-blanks-lean-start-wins-laurie-young-global-prize-thought-leadership-2014/

Laurie Young was both a professional colleague for many years and also a dear friend. I continue to miss him and his always insightful contribution to the world of professional services. But it’s good to see his name and work remembered in events like this. Well done to Practice Management International http://www.pmforum.co.uk/ and the Managing Partners Forum http://www.mpfglobal.com/

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