Book review of ‘The Future of the Professions’ (2015)
by Richard and Daniel Susskind, Oxford University Press
The purpose of this book is to explore how we share practical expertise in society. Along the way it looks at how the professions have developed and challenges the need for them in the future.
From the very first page a stark warning is explained – change is afoot and the best that the professions can hope for is that the future will be similar to to-day just operating more efficiently.
The second future, which is the one preferred by the authors, is that a transformation is underway which will result in the practical expertise of the professions being freely available to society as a whole. In other words, there will be no need for professionals (as we know them now) in the future.
It is wrong to trivialise the treatise as saying that the robots will take over the world. The Susskinds have undertaken extensive research in writing this book and what they have to say deserves to be taken seriously. The reader does not have to agree with it but I would suggest the reader does need to engage and reflect with what is said; after all their future livelihood as a current professional may depend on it.
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There is no getting away from the problem that the cost of accessing justice is seriously undermining the rule of law, fairness and equal treatment before the law. The work of Susskind senior has already made an impact on Government thinking.
For a change, the futurologists are looking at all the professions and not just the legal profession. They set about putting the development of professional status into an historic context. It was something of an eye-opener to read of the sociologist’s perspective that the professions do not just enjoy economic status but also a monopoly over status and prestige. Whilst the writers do not agree with some of the research they do ask ‘why does society tolerate professions at all?’
In chapter 1.7 the writers identify six ways in which the professions are failing society because they are “unaffordable, under-exploiting technology, disempowering, ethically challengeable, underperforming and inscrutable”.
I found the best way to approach stomaching the criticisms was to apply what was being said to another profession and see if I agreed with that – in my case I have had more than my fair share of the medical profession in recent years and was able to see much of the arguments resonate with me in that context.
This approach made me realise that as legal professionals we must be objective about our own profession and try to keep an open mind. The writers do suggest ways in which the professions can resolve these problems. They also suggest alternatives to the professions!
The book sets the scene for the scale of change. It provides some theory about the exponential growth in information technology, the use of machines capable of many things which human professionals are capable of and the increasing ability, with technology’s help, to break down a professional’s work into tasks to be performed by machines and paraprofessionals.
The authors rightly anticipate objections to their ideas and theories and set about answering the likely ones which they pose. They take a particular interest in the moral dimension – to what extent will removing professional gatekeepers introduce through market forces different gatekeepers who may be worse than the professions.
Already, we see different gatekeepers offering knowledge
- Those in the legal publishing market who offer webinars for a fee to the users whilst not paying the providers of the knowledge for the content and so make money from offering the knowledge of others to those who seek it, at a profit to them, but not the provider.
- I provide the knowledge of others on my website and do not pay the contributors, I curate it, edit it and host it for free and share it for free with our readers.
Different types of gatekeepers of knowledge already exist compared to the past when the main access to the knowledge both models above are now sharing would have been books or courses which had to be purchased and for which the providers of the know-how would have been paid.
Chapter 6.8 clearly states that ‘it is a central thesis of this book that, over time, there will be a decline in demand for the traditional professions and the conventional professional worker’. The implications of this are what the reader needs to consider. I doubt most people would disagree with the statement that ‘the fundamental role of the professions is to provide access to knowledge and experience that non-specialists lack’. However, the writers do not seem to add that this is done in return for a reasonable reward. The writers’ view seems to be that the lack of easy access to the current professional’s expertise and lack of affordability are powerful reasons why the professions as we know them must transform.
The authors are concerned to answer the question ‘how do we share practical expertise in society?’ rather than what is the future of the professions. They acknowledge that it is about exploring what is more intolerable – the growing unaffordability of accessing practical expertise and the lack of access to it or easier access via technology to more and more of the tasks which are currently performed by professionals, even if this means society loses the protections which professionals provide.
Structure & Layout
There are seven chapters organised in three parts: Change, Theory and Implications.
Change comprises three chapters on what is entitled “The Grand Bargain” in which the history of the professions is explored; followed by “From the Vanguard” which explores eight professions: health, education, divinity, law, journalism, management consulting, tax & audit and architecture; and “Patterns across the Professions” which explores labour and the effect of technology on occupations.
Theory comprises two chapters on “Information and Technology” in which the authors provide a fifty year overview and “Production and Distribution of Knowledge” which examines the link between the creation of knowledge and the costs of its production and gatekeeping by the professions. It explores the future production and distribution of expertise across seven new models.
Implications comprises two chapters on “ Objections and Anxieties” in which the authors anticipate and answer some of the obvious objections and fears of the future they predict; and “After the Professions” which looks at whether we need human interactions at all and the impact this will have on the future of professional work.
In the concluding chapter “What future should we want?” the reader is told that “increasingly capable machines will transform the work of professionals, giving rise to new ways of sharing practical expertise in society”.
Unlike other hardline determinists the writers do not mean by this that human beings will have no control over what happens. Instead, by writing this book they wish to encourage debate in society as to what sort of future we want and how we should harness the use of machines.
They envisage a new world which at this stage could go one of two ways and society needs to decide which it wants:
- ‘A society in which practical expertise is a shared online resource, freely available and maintained in a collaborative spirit; or
- A society in which knowledge and expertise may be available online, but is owned and controlled by providers, so that recipients will generally pay for access to this resource and our collective practical expertise is enclosed and traded, most likely by new gatekeepers.’
The writers have undertaken in-depth research over five years to write the book and illustrate the theories and issues by the use of numerous examples. It is not a text book for a practitioner full of handouts and checklists. It is a digest of lots of research applied to certain professions in a way which provokes deep thought about the future of those professions.
Clarity & readability
It is a tribute to the authors that so much research (the bibliography runs to 26 pages) is condensed into a thought-provoking read of 308 pages which is broken up into short manageable chunks that can be picked up and put down at will.
Relevance to practitioners
Forewarned is forearmed as the saying is – in which case this book must be read by all in the legal (and other) professions and indeed by the movers and shakers in society. The subject matter of the book has profound implications for the future as we move from the ‘post-print society’ into the age of technology. Lawyers, as one of the groups of professionals mentioned, need to read this book before making future investment decisions in their businesses.
It provides us all as citizens with key data to decide how, in the future, we expect to access practical expertise, whether it should be protected by the old gatekeepers (the professions) or new gatekeepers (enterprises); whether we should be expected to pay to access it and who will be liable to us as citizens and users if the expertise is wrong.
I would have liked to have seen more consideration given to how, in the preferred utopia of the writers:
- Expertise will be gained in the future if there is no reward for achieving it;
- Will those accessing that which is freely provided be assured that it is current practical expertise if no-one is responsible for keeping it current or checking its veracity.
- We would trust and how we could we rely on trusting all freely provided knowledge when life and death or freedom or jail might be at stake?
- Liability for and accountability to users will be addressed
I am genuinely concerned about the lack of affordability of current professional services but in removing the existing privileges of operation we are in danger of focusing only on cost and not on developing the skills of future providers; producing reliable knowledge and giving accountability by way of reassurance to the user.
The Law Society has itself been undergoing a review since the installation of the new Chief Executive and on 28 January 2016 published its report on The Future of Legal Services (http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/news/press-releases/future-of-legal-services—press-release) whether it is intentional or not this report echoes many of the book’s themes.
As the saying is, the future is now and we ignore it at our peril. Please read this book.
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