The Future of the Professions by Daniel and Richard Susskind tackles what trends in artificial intelligence, data science, and labor economics mean to the professions — careers which have remained stubborn in the face of change.
As with much of my writing, I attempt project these big-picture themes onto my world. What do they mean to a twentysomething business analyst at a hospital?
Down with the Intern Mill
The business model of the professions is a pyramid scheme. Scores of poorly-paid, overworked junior professionals do the work, but the bill has the senior partner’s name — and rate. By agreeing to provide cheap labor, young staff gets a chance to someday be at the top of the pyramid and run the same scheme on the future generation.
You see this structure from law firms to teaching hospitals. I’m increasingly seeing it in my own profession of corporate finance with what I call the “intern mill.” The idea of a “fellowship” a few years ago was only common to medicine and academia. Now it’s not uncommon to go through a “finance fellowship” before receiving a full-time offer.
The authors see an end to the pyramid structure. “Most clients no longer want to fund professionals at the bottom of the pyramid,” the authors write. “Instead they are attracted to new approaches, such as the greater use of para-professionals or increasing deployment of technology-based solutions.”
The early-career analyst, then, should not have the sole goal of making partner. He will not be able to pad his salary on the labor of future entry-level workers. To succeed in his job, he must learn to dismantle it.
Take This Job and Chunk It
Gains from the division of labor is fundamental to economic growth. Yet we see the professions as a chunk of roles largely unchanged for decades. The authors predict that with coming technology, the professions will unbundle. Why should research and design, for example, go along with client-facing counseling?
The dismantling of a job into constituent tasks in itself will be a job for analysts. “It will be key to understand a workflow and really reduce it to component parts and specialize it,” they say. The authors predict a set of careers in the post-professional age, one of which they term “process analyst.” Today’s analysts could thrive in this role. They are used to framing business problems and processes. This will take that mindset further — rather than identifying drivers of work projects, analysts will deconstruct the jobs themselves.
By chunking the professions into components, professionals will be able to specialize. This will mean less time on labor-heavy, often-repeated chores.
Business Problems ARE IT Problems
An immediate result of the “process analyst” approach will be an erasing distinction “business problems” and “IT problems.” Back to the division of labor. When people focus on what they’re good at, everyone benefits.
Many professional firms are not applying the division of labor. Poorly-trained workers spend the majority of their time preparing data and reports. I’ve wondered why this is. It could be pride — professionals think the uninitiated could never replace their duties through technology. It could also be economics. In the pyramid structure, there was little incentive to avoid this. Companies could use cheap, young professional labor for menial tasks.
Regardless, the failure to see business problems as IT problems mean a career where over half the time is spend preparing data. End-users become their own developers. For many professionals to improve their work performance, they must ironically move further from their specialty — into database administration and programming. This is a poor division of labor.
In the future, professionals must understand that business problems are IT problems, and delegate accordingly. “Online medical diagnostic systems, computerized document drafting applications, and web-based tax compliance systems are best not developed by doctors, lawyers, or tax advisers who aspire to being systems engineers in their spare time,” the authors say.
Many analysts can feel the pain. The future of the professions must mean the walls fall between IT and management. Analysts, often unofficially stuck in the middle today, take a key role in this future.
Analysts, Can You Handle This?
My first thought after reading this book was cynical: “At least I didn’t go to law school!” But even as an econ and finance major working in health care finance, the book has many implications for me.
Rather than sweating through menial reports and endless internships, analysts should look to grow the division of labor through technology. All professions await this future. Read the book and get ready!