Book Review: The Future of the Professions

Book Review: The Future of the Professions by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind



The Future of the Professions should be of interest to anyone concerned with the future of work for the excellent perspectives it affords on changes in the professions. Richard Susskind has been working for 30 years on transforming the way lawyers and courts work and has written eight related books. This most recent volume, written with his son, Daniel Susskind, applies ideas developed in the legal context to other professions including accounting, medicine, journalism, health, architecture, even the clergy (Catholics among us will want to check out the new app for confession informally dubbed ‘Sinder’.)

The Susskinds begin by calling into question the ‘the grand bargain’ that society traditionally has made with experts in the professions and posits new ways of organising professional work that may be higher in quality as well as more affordable and accessible. Whether or not professional work remains intact in the future and whether or not we can trust the professions to transform their own work (both doubtful), the authors suggest that that those outside the professions, not least recipients of professional services, should contribute to the discussion.

As the authors outline patterns and trends transforming the professions, such as the move from bespoke services, the bypassing of traditional gatekeepers, the shift from reactive to proactive approaches to professional work, and the ‘more for less’ challenge, the reader is encouraged to rethink the nature and relevance of professional services.

Professionals of the future will need to embrace new ways of communicating and become masters of data and analytics as well as adept users of technology, ‘to settle for less is to under perform, to fail to take advantage of well-established efficiency tools.’  But it isn’t simply about embracing new technology-related disciplines; professionals must also extend their areas of expertise into new disciplines. Multidisciplinarity becomes the norm as the boundaries of the professions blur and services become more focused on meeting clients overall needs.

A trend towards standardisation, ‘handcrafting to process’, is underpinned by routinisation, disintermediation and re-intermediation, and decomposition. At the same time change is being driven by new labour models such as ‘labour arbitrage’; paraprofessionalisation and delegation; flexible self-employment; new specialists; users as providers; resources built by users for users as a new source of practical expertise; online communities; and, of course, mechanisation.

Recipients of professional services are driving change as they enjoy wider options, online selection, online self-help, personalisation and mass customisation, embedded knowledge, online collaboration such as communities of experience, communities of practice, and crowdsourcing.

All these patterns and trends will lead to realisation of latent demand and they will inform radical transformations in the professions including the demystification of professions and professionals. Preoccupation of professional firms with liberalisation, globalisation, specialisation, new business models and new partnerships and consolidation should not preclude full engagement with these other wider and deeper trends.

The book extends beyond reporting to an examination why these transformations are taking place. The authors describe the current transitional phase from print-based industrial to technology-based (esp w.r.t. information) Internet society. Together with the re invigoration of artificial intelligence – the authors predict the emergence and adoption of the second wave of artificial intelligence systems in the professions – this transition will mean that information will be integrated through technology in ways that most of us haven’t begun to imagine.

While the authors take the view that ‘change is long overdue’, citing inefficiencies and other issues in the professions, they do address objections to transformation such as concerns about trust, the loss of craft, about the importance of personal interaction and empathy, and about maintaining the important resources of human expertise. But the fact that the the roles that we perceive and know now may not exist in future does not mean that there won’t be other roles to replace them

Well many of these rules can’t even be imagined the others do outline a few categories of future roles such as paraprofessionals, empathisers, knowledge engineers and moderators as well as data scientists, process analysts, designers, and systems engineers. In imagining future and the ways in which humans will still be needed, the authors note four capabilities professionals bring to bear in daily work – cognitive, effective, manual, and moral – and they discuss how technology may relate to these different capabilities. This book has been the impetus to me to begin to more seriously consider human interaction with and relationships with machines and technology, tool, partner, competition, cooperation, and to re-evaluate my attitude about the need for paid work to survive.

In considering the future allocation of roles not just among humans, but among humans and machines, the authors suggest thinking in terms not of ‘jobs’ but of ‘tasks’ and in that context three central questions need to be asked: 1) What is the new quantity of tasks that have to be carried out? 2) What is the nature of these tasks? And 3) Who has the advantage in carrying out these tasks? Given this economics oriented approach – is the machine more productive, is it more efficient, what is the cost and what is the benefit in economic terms? – it is no coincidence that this discussion reflects the traditional underlying sense of ownership in professional roles and the sense of threat to that proprietary interest. The term ‘technological unemployment’ is language of scarcity. Language such as ‘Who gets to carry out these tasks’ or ‘who has the advantage in carrying out these tasks’ suggests a perspective of limitation and competition for the scarce resource of opportunity.

Overall, however, the book conveys the authors’ optimism about ways in which current transformations can expand and create opportunity, as well as the potential for liberation from the constraints of proprietary professionalism. The fact is that our world is changing. These changes will provide answers to some of the problems of humankind and this earth that we share while at the same time posing new challenges that we face together. The authors argue for the liberation of expertise that if it is sequestered, that exclusivity over expertise should only be on a temporary basis. For knowledge there is no tragedy of the commons because sharing enriches us all.

The authors conclude with arguments for liberating expertise, for taking positive steps to shape the future in ways that make professional services accessible to meet huge, as-yet-untapped demand. Invoking Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ they suggest that most people would choose to live in a society where medical help, spiritual guidance, legal advice, news, business assistance and support, accounting and other professional services and know-how are widely available at the lowest cost, and are fair and maximise the benefit for all. We have the means to share our knowledge. The Susskinds exhort us to exercise the will to do so.