Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Future of the Professions by Richard and Daniel Susskind - Summary of some key ideas

Richard and Daniel Susskind's The Future of the Professions challenges the view that white collar jobs will be immune from the impact of technological advances into the workplace. Indeed, the authors go so far as to detail the road map 'how technology will transform the work of human experts':
'In the long run, increasingly capable machines will transform the work of professionals giving rise to new ways of sharing practical expertise in society' (p.303) 
with a consequence that
'Decades from now, today's professions will play a much less prominent role in society.' (p.271) 
They argue that reform of the professions is not only inevitable, but that it is long overdue.

The role of the professions - the Grand Bargain

At the heart of Susskind and Susskind's argument is a particular understanding of the relationship between society and the professions. 'The professions are responsible for many of the most important functions and services in society' and their fundamental role ‘is to provide access to knowledge and experience that non specialists lack’ (p.268).  Society affords the professions protection and status in return for providing these services fairly in an arrangement which they call 'the grand bargain':
'In acknowledgement of and in return for their expertise, experience, and judgement, which they are expected to apply in delivering affordable, accessible, up-to-date, reassuring, and reliable services  . . . we (society) place our trust in the professions in granting them exclusivity over a wide range of socially significant services and activities, by paying them a fair wage, by conferring upon them independence, autonomy, rights of self-determination, and by according them respect and status.' (p.23)
Thus the purpose of the professions is to provide solutions to issues which individuals within society commonly face: ill-health, disputes, lack of education, the need for news and navigating the tax system.

The authors believe that the professions are ripe for reform and should lose their privileged status because they have broken this bargain, in that they do not provide these services that are either 'affordable' or 'accessible':
'levels of access and affordability to the practical expertise that the professions provide fall short of acceptable. The combination of these two reasons - the importance of what they provide, and the current inadequacy of the provision - overwhelms the case to protect the craft.' (p.247 - also p.269)

Automation and Transformation of the Professions

The authors outline how automation is likely to come to the professions by examining some of the practices that have been adopted by those in the vanguard of change:


  • Online learning - Khan Academy etc.
  • Flipped Blended Learning
  • Learning Analytics
  • Document Assembly Systems (e.g. ContractExpress) which can generate high quality documents after interactive consultations with users.
  • Online Dispute Resolution (e.g. Modria which is behind eBay and PayPal's resolution service)

Tax and Audit

  • Online computerised tax preparation software (e.g. TurboTax in the US)
  • Online Accounting software (e.g. Quickbooks)
  • Computer-Assisted Audit Techniques (e.g. PwC's system, Aura)


  • 'Telemedicine' using video links to make diagnoses or to aid with operations from a distance;
  • Robots assisting surgeons to conduct delicate operations with greater dexterity than is possible by a human;
  • the rise of online medical platforms and 'GP intelligent monitoring', 'remote monitoring' by smart devices and apps;
  • Robotic Pharmacy (e.g. the University of California at San Francisco which has a pharmacy staffed by a single robot);

Eight Patterns and Trends

Decomposition, Process Analysts, Para-professionals and Delegation

One of the most important observations that Susskind and Susskind make is that when we are talking about the future of the professions, we need to move on from seeing the machine v human debate in binary terms. They are not talking about a robot replacing a lawyer/teacher/doctor in the way that a robot might replace a human worker on the production line of a car manufacturing plant. However when we 'decompose' or break down what lawyers/teachers/doctors do into tasks, we can see there there is scope for some of these to replaced with automated systems - or indeed by lesser qualified human beings.
We argue that professional work should be decomposed, that is broken down into constituent ‘tasks’ – identifiable, distinct, and separate modules of work that make it up. Once decomposed, the challenge then is to identify the most efficient way of executing each type of task, constituent with the quality of work needed, the level of human interaction required, and the ease with which the decomposed tasks can be managed alongside one another and pulled together into a coherent offering. (p.212)

Leading on from this, the authors argue that one of the key roles for professional organisations in the future is that of the 'process analyst' whose role is 'to identify the level of person best suited for the range of decomposed tasks (p.124).

On analysis, it is frequently becoming apparent in various disciplines that para-professional who are sufficiently trained, knowledgeable, and equipped can undertake tasks that were previously taken on by senior professionals. (p.124-5)
The delegation to para-professionals may lead to replacement by automated systems:
The features of tasks in the workplace that make them amenable to delegation and para-professionalization - that they are well bounded and can, in part, be captured in standard processes - are precisely those features that render them strong candidates in due course for the application of technology (both automation and innovation). (p.125) 

Decomposition and Para-professionalism in Schools?

This all begs the question of whether or not teaching can be decomposed and the tasks either delegated to a 'Para-Teacher' or performed by the application of technology. This is the subject of my Master's Dissertation with the Ashridge-Hult Business School and I will be discussing some of the ideas here in a subsequent blogpost.

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