CIPD 2016: The future of the professions?

The current digital age and its creative destruction offer a new world. What kind of future remains up to us, suggested author Daniel Susskind at the CIPD 2016 annual conference.

Illustration of mother board and circuitry superimposed on illustration of human heads
We’ve undergone at least two industrial revolutions since the traditional English nursery rhyme called to mind the butcher, baker or candlestick maker. What might these careers be if we rewrote the verse for today, or indeed for 2020, when predictions suggest 60 per cent of today's job roles today will be superceded?Oxford University economics fellow and best-selling author Daniel Susskind left HR professionals to ponder this issue as he concluded his exploration of the future of work at the CIPD’s annual Manchester conference and exhibition in November.

Radical change or business as usual, with a twist?

In keeping with the professional body for HR and people development’s key theme of stepping up and facing turbulence head on, Mr Susskind began his investigation into the future by assessing two different futures for the professions in the context of the challenges they face from technology and artificial intelligence (AI).The first picture he said is “reassuringly familiar,” and a more efficient version of today. The second is what he described as “active displacement,” where the traditional professions are dismantled as new types of competition and kinds of work come through.

Or somewhere in the middle?

For Mr Susskind, the driving force for change across every sector and aspect of working lives is technology. He contended that digital platforms are becoming far more effective, widespread and useful than human experts.Moreover, digitisation is undermining the learned professions’ reason for being. That is, as a solution to the problem in a print-based society that no one knows everything, so turn to experts to make progress.Comparing how knowledge is acquired and shared today with professions as the traditional gatekeeper of knowledge in our societies and its institutions, Mr Susskind recalled the success of non-profit-making online education resource Khan Academy, which is said to have more registered users than pupils at traditional schools, and free online medical reference WebMD.

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Key trends

Citing findings from the 30 years’ research for the book, The Future of the Professions, which Mr Susskind co-wrote with his father, Professor Richard Susskind, Daniel Susskind identified patterns and key trends that are affecting the traditional professions during this time of flux and challenge.These include the challenge familiar to everyone in HR and the mobility sphere of having to do more for less, while responding to new types of competition. “The competition that kills you doesn’t look like you,” Mr Susskind remarked.The commoditisation of work is also a key theme, with professional work broken down into its constituent parts –“decomposed” – and disseminated, whether to outsourced providers or digitised. “This is all driven by technology and all happening through technology,” said Mr Susskind.

The impact?

For HR and mobility, where many back-office functions have already undergone this process of standardisation, systematisation and outsourcing, the challenge of adapting to the changing role of the professions is real.The ongoing developments in artificial intelligence “I think has implications for jobs we do,’ said Mr Susskind. However, he warned of the dangers of thinking about technology from the perspective of whether machines can learn to exercise the judgment that will see them replace humans in professional roles.

Rephrasing the question

Given we ask professionals for their expert view on a particular situation, “the better question is can machines deal with uncertainty better than a human being?” suggested Mr Susskind. “The answer is of course they can. This is precisely what these machines are good at.”Instead of a no-work future, Mr Susskind believes ongoing technological strides, particularly in the field of AI, will bring a very different and unfamiliar set of new roles, skills and capabilities to those professionals have now.

The future?

“It means that professionals thinking about work in 2020 have two possible options,” said Mr Susskind. Try and compete with system solutions and do the sort of thing they not capable of doing, eg interpersonal skills. The second option is to try and build those machines.”In a call to action that echoed throughout the conference, Mr Susskind advised HR professionals to start with a blank sheet of paper to reimagine new roles and organisation models. “Don’t pretend this isn’t happening,” he said. “The best way of predicting the future is to invent it.”

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