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Innovation in the Professions

Innovation in the Professions

By Professor Richard Susskind OBE, co-author of The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Until a decade ago, most professionals felt they were immune from change. Lawyers, accountants, architects, and doctors recognised, of course, that technology was wreaking havoc in the world of blue collar workers and in industries such as retail, transport, and manufacturing. But they rationalised that their more cerebral activities fell beyond the scope of innovation. Professional service, it was thought, is irreducibly human and so AI and robotics, for example, would have little role to play in their lives.

No longer. Driven by cost pressures (professional service is increasingly unaffordable for most citizens) and by the arrival of alternative new providers (embracing technology and new labour models), many traditional professional firms are now vocal champions of innovation. While some of this is little more than innovation-by-press-release, there are many genuine attempts to rethink and redesign the way that professionals work.

Two types of professional innovation

A firm distinction can be drawn between two types of innovation in the professions. The first is process improvement – traditional working practices are maintained but are streamlined and optimised, while technology is used to automate pre-existing tasks and processes. Architects embrace computer-assisted design, patients consult with doctors across Skype, lawyers use automated document assembly, accountants use spreadsheets. These changes may be reassuringly familiar to professionals but they enhance rather than challenge the old ways of working. In contrast, the second approach is radical change, which involves replacing conventional ways of working, sweeping away time-honoured methods, and often eliminating the need for professionals. Online courts, completion of tax returns electronically, e-learning, medical diagnostics, architectural design by algorithm – these systems empower citizens to sort out problems for themselves. This is not automation by technology. It is transformation. It is the commoditisation, digitisation, and industrialisation of professional service.

Nonetheless, it is early days for these so-called disruptive technologies. It is clear, though, that our machines are becoming increasingly capable, and they are taking on more and more tasks that in the past were regarded as the exclusive preserve of the traditional professions. And there is no apparent finishing line.

Outcome-thinking

In this climate of transformation and disruption, many professionals ask, ‘what is the future for X?’, X being lawyers, doctors, accountants, and so forth. This is the wrong question to ask. It focuses too much on the current cohort of providers. It assumes that these professionals indeed have a future. A better question to ask is, ‘how in the future will technology enable us to solve the problems to which our Xs are currently our best solution?’. This inclines us to a form of ‘outcome-thinking’, focusing less on how we improve our professionals and more on why people consult professionals in the first place and how we might meet their needs differently (more quickly, at lower cost, and more conveniently).

In the end, patients do not want doctors; they want health. Clients do not want tax advisers and accountants; they want their financial affairs dealt with efficiently and compliantly. Nor do they want architects; they want safe, functional, attractive buildings. If innovation leads to these desired outcomes being delivered in ways that the market finds preferable, then the recipients of professional service are likely to default to the new providers.

For these recipients, this will be good news – better and more affordable service. For professionals who are unwilling to change, this is no doubt threatening. In contrast, for professionals who are eager and willing to innovate, there will be countless new opportunities in the 2020s. The most commercially successful will be those who build the systems that replace our old ways of working.

Provided by Professor Richard Susskind, OBE.