In one of his regular coronavirus press conferences, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe told Kenyans that “If we continue to behave normally, this disease will treat us abnormally.” This quotation has since become a mantra that people use in various platforms to warn others on real or imagined social challenges. Notwithstanding the disruptions of the coronavirus crisis, the same caution can be extended to the continuing impacts of technological advancements on the future of professions. If professionals in different fields continue with the business as usual attitude, technology will gradually throw them out of the competitiveness ring.
Qualified people in each profession possess distinguished expertise which is anchored on the relevant body of knowledge, skills and practices. Professionals offer services to individuals, organisations and the public within the tenets of established codes of conduct and ethics. They must also be members of legislated bodies that govern their entry and conduct in the profession. In addition, members jealousy guard the public image of their profession in the eyes of various stakeholders.
The monolithic provision of services that professionals enjoy is under threat from technology and competition between and among professions. Technology continues to transform professions like accountancy, HR, law and medicine on different fronts. According to Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, co-authors of The Future of Professions, technology “helps to optimise and streamline the work professionals are already doing.” Or it brings along new ways of thinking and doing things that would gradually make professionals “largely or wholly redundant.” For example, parties to a dispute in the US can resolve it through e-mediation without involving lawyers.
Professions that will sleep on their laurels will in future get rude shocks on either losing their competitive advantage of expertise or chasing after clients whose loyalty has shifted to other unexpected online providers. Here are the effects of technology on selected professions and their implications on service delivery.
Over a number of decades, accountants have stood out as financial custodians and advisors whose word on the health of the organisations’ wallet was final. They have always been the CEOs’ right-hand people in tabling the bottom line figures to shareholders and other stakeholders. However, technology is racing to cut some of their responsibilities to size. The automation of financial records and reports gave them sleepless nights on the fate of their illustrious career.
Some accountants were shown the door while the remaining ones had to focus on financial analysis and interpretation to inform strategic decisions. Those who have attempted to seek refuge in finance-related areas like credit control have found the field is already flooded. Time is ripe for the accountancy profession to reinvent itself to regain its diminishing popularity as a career of choice.
HR professionals were quick to identify and automate routine administrative tasks leaving them ample time to focus on strategy and performance analytics. They have assumed an advisory role to line managers who grapple with labour relations issues. HR is readying itself to fully use Big Data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other metrics to ensure organisations operate with optimum human resource capability through collective intelligence.
HR professionals are handling non-routine tasks while letting technology facilitate routine ones for efficient delivery of HR services. According to Dr Tony Nasirembe, a seasoned HR practitioner, machines will not handle areas such as collective bargaining; grievances handling and disputes settlements. Machines have yet to become versatile in governance and ethics matters which require human judgement. The peripheral threat to the HR professionals in regular employment is not machines but the increasing outsourcing of some HR services.
Lawyers, donning in their dreaded black attire punctuated with a white-collar neck, have commanded lots of respect and admiration especially in handling cases of national interest. They were at the forefront of resisting any use of technology such as emails to send legal documents. Instead, they are stuck on physical delivery of piles of documents in hard copies which must be signed for on being received. However, the current work from home advisory has prompted them to change tack and use technological platforms to execute their duties.
Lawyers have lost document preparation business like memorandum and articles of association to online providers and the AG’s Business Registration Service. The legal profession is on its toes to transform its service delivery to accommodate the use of meeting platforms like Skype and Zoom.
Although lawyers may be stripped of providing standard documentation work, they will continue to be indispensable on the oral defence of their clients at law courts. For the legal profession to sustain its relevance in the wave of technical changes, there is a need for lawyers to not only embrace technology but also make legal fees competitive. Otherwise, aggressive online legal resource providers are already bagging and rendering some of their traditional routine services.
The medical profession is not easy to demystify to the general public because of its complex language and highly specialised expertise like surgery. Medics use machines for efficiency in offering health services but mushrooming medical apps threaten their insulated medical expertise. For example, people can at their own risk by-pass doctors and obtain prescriptions from a phone-based medical app. And later use the prescription to purchase drugs from unscrupulous pharmacies.
The oncoming avalanche of robots will render some medical specialists redundant. For example, a robot in the Pharmacy Department at the University of Rochester Medical Centre stores and dispenses drugs for patients in the hospital. As the pharmacists are freed from routine dispensing tasks, the disturbing question is: What role can they now play in the medical team?
The Susskinds are urging professions to “stop thinking about a “job” and instead think about the “tasks” that make up that job.” The medical professionals need to break up their job into tasks to determine which ones can be done by non-experts or machines. This iteration and reallocation of tasks will free doctors to focus on complex tasks such as surgery.
Some professions are more vulnerable to technical changes than others. Machines are more suitable for executing routine tasks but presently they cannot make judgements and engage in inter-personal intonations. Hence, the future survival of professions will be highly dependent on undertaking non-routine tasks that require human interventions. Such tasks like professional judgement are yet to be offered by machines.
The writer, Samson Osero is a Human Resource Development Consultant and author of Transition into Retirement.