What is the future of professions?

What do you think: With advanced technology, have traditional professional positions such as lawyers, auditors and bookkeepers become obsolete?

Perhaps you rely on a tax advisor, as you couldn’t imagine filing your taxes on your own. Or perhaps you’re the type who instead, with a few Google searches, is changing the oil on your car, diagnosing a friend’s persistent cough and managing the books of your own personal business.

These scenarios give rise to a debate that is relevant in today’s internet-based society. Where exactly is the line between what we need experts to do and what we can do ourselves? Perhaps more importantly, where should that line be – or should it exist at all?

Drawing on years of research, authors Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind of The Future of the Professions, introduce us to the changes currently taking place in the professional world.

How skilled are you at doing your own taxes, diagnosing your own illnesses or educating your children? These kinds of skills are certainly complicated; no person can manage all of life’s challenges completely independently. People need guidance on topics that they may not know much or even anything about.

This is why we turn to others who are more knowledgeable and skilled than we are in particular fields of expertise: professionals.

Professionals educate our children, help run our businesses, fight for our legal rights and care for us when we’re sick or injured. We trust professionals because of their knowledge, expertise, experience and character.

Professionals don’t simply memorize knowledge from textbooks and journals; they also know how to tailor that knowledge to each person with whom they work. They stay current with developments in their field, and aim to maintain a high standard of quality in their practice.

Importantly, we trust professionals, expecting them to be honest and selfless, keeping our best interests at heart. In turn, society in general grants professionals the autonomy to manage their fields of expertise.

We can think of professions like clubs. Members decide who gets in, and set the standards for training, examinations and required credentials. Professionals often also manage their own schools, universities and institutes.

For example, if you want to be a credentialed teacher, you’ll have to attend either a certified school or special classes, and eventually pass a state examination.

Some professions also often maintain full legal authority over certain fields, such as health. This is why only a licensed doctor can prescribe certain medicines, those that could be dangerous if not administered correctly. In short, we need professionals to keep us safe.

If you need to seek the advice of a lawyer, do you worry first about the cost? It’s not an unreasonable concern. Many people simply can’t afford the services of a professional.

Many countries as a result find it difficult to maintain a high level of quality in professional services, as funds are often lacking to support schools and hospitals, for example.

The financial crisis and resulting public funding cuts have further exacerbated this situation. Today few people can truly afford access to professional expertise – whether tax advisors, bookkeepers or consultants.

Yet the internet has created new ways for the average person to access and share knowledge and information. Previously, only a professional was privy to high-level information relating to a specific field. For example detailed medical information was accessible only to students or doctors in academic libraries or professional facilities.

Now nearly anyone can diagnose a cough or learn how to file taxes online. Online communities, video tutorials and even the rise of online universities have opened the floodgates of knowledge for countless people around the globe.

Professionals, however, tend to resist changes that dilute the exclusive power of their chosen professional fields.

By definition, a professional knows more about her field than the person to whom she’s offering services. Often, an expert might unconsciously (or even consciously!) try to keep an intellectual distance from a client to maintain her profession’s exclusivity, discouraging self-help or self-discovery. She may even use complicated jargon in an attempt to justify high fees.

When professionals are disingenuous, however, they fail to hold up their end of the professional bargain. So here’s the question: should the public trust professionals to reform themselves?

The last time you felt ill, how long did you wait before you saw a doctor? Plenty of people put off seeking the help of a professional. Yet soon, such concerns might not be a problem anymore.

Thanks to technology, we’re entering into an age of easier access to professional services.

Technology makes professional work more efficient by automating routine tasks. Automatization can take care of manual or administrative work, allowing a professional to focus on more complex or rewarding tasks.

Teleprofessionalism allows a patient to have a video consultation with a doctor, for example, to offer medical advice when the doctor or patient can’t be there in person. An instance of telesurgery enabled a team of surgeons in the United States to “remove” the gallbladder of a patient some 4,700 miles away in France!

Advanced technology can assume other aspects of professional work, through the creation of protocols, standardized documents or online services. This should result in enhanced productivity and faster turnaround and delivery for services.

Automation will also become more important as certain tasks become too complex to be carried out by professionals alone. There are now over 13,000 known diseases, 6,000 drugs and 4,000 medical procedures – far too much information for one professional to know and master.

Technology also makes professional expertise more readily available to the layman, threatening certain professional positions. In 2014, for example, 48 million US citizens prepared their taxes with online software instead of with the help of a tax professional.

Increased internet access now allows expert knowledge to reach people no matter where they are. The Khan Academy, for example, offers educational videos online for free. In 2014, it registered 10 million visitors per month!

Few people enjoy the process of filing taxes. Each year, laws change and it becomes harder and harder for the average citizen to keep up with new, ever more complicated regulations.

In the United States alone, tax regulations are updated an average of once per day. Each year, it’s estimated that some 6.1 billion hours are spent filing taxes. That’s equivalent to three million people working full time.

Individuals, as well as small and big companies, already have technological solutions for filing taxes. In the United Kingdom, for example, small businesses that previously depended on accountants for monitoring their cash flow now use online software. The software keeps track of a company’s finances and updates tax documents as the year progresses, so that the return is set to go once the fiscal year has ended.

Tax advisor Deloitte, for example, distilled the knowledge of some 250 tax specialists into one digitized system. This system is now used by companies all over the world.

Tax specialists also use technology to organize accounting work, predicting tax that is due and making changes to accounts to minimize the tax that needs to be paid. Technology too can use its data-crunching power to offer advice on managing cash flow, determining the pros and cons of mergers and acquisitions and even helping to figure out the best location for corporate headquarters.

Deloitte has even created a mobile app geared for expat professionals to offer advice on where to travel with the goal of minimizing the professional’s tax burden.

The same set of laws and regulations that defines tax accounting is also applicable to general business accounting, so in the near future, we’ll see specialized systems assuming more accounting work as well.

Modern technological systems are powerful, thanks the growth in computational power over the years. This has led to groundbreaking advances in the crunching of enormous data sets, a process known as big data.

Big data techniques can identify and predict patterns in very large data sets. This sort of processing power is highly valuable in today’s data-rich world.

Check out my related post: How has wearables improved the medical field?

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