Future of the professions 2: Daniel v the lions
John Stokdyk reports on an encounter at the recent Sage Summit between ‘Future of the Professions’ author Daniel Susskind and six leading US practice development experts.
‘The Future of the Professions’, which paints a gloomy picture for eight professions that will be severely disrupted by artificial intelligence and automation in the next decade or so, has been causing ripples around the world since it was published earlier this year.
Father and son academics Richard and Daniel Susskind are regular fixtures on the international conference circuit, where masochistic professionals can’t get enough of the message that their jobs are about to be swept away by supercomputers and bots.
Daniel was on fine form at the end of July, when he spent the afternoon with 200 accountants and bookkeepers at the Sage Summit in Chicago. After presenting his initial findings, Susskind took part in an hour-long debate with some of the leading lights of on the US accountancy scene (pictured sitting above L-R, with Susskind second from right):
- Ron Baker, author of ‘Implementing Value Pricing’ and founder of the Versage Institute
- Gary Boomer, “Visionary and strategist” for Boomer Consulting.
- Garry Carter, chief executive of the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers
- William Nahum, French accountant and founder/chairman of the 65,000-strong L’Académie des Sciences et Techniques Comptables et Financières.
- Doug Sleeter, founder of The Sleeter Group
- Joe Woodard, Insightful Accountant publisher and host of the Scaling New Heights conference
To recap, the basic premise of ‘The Future of the Professions’ is that technology is being adopted within accountancy in two ways. The most immedatiate impact sees tech helping accountants to become more effective at what they currently do.
In the second scenario, technology is going beyond that. Accounting functions are moving away from bespoke services and being broken down into discrete tasks and activities. As more powerful machine-learning systems are applied to these tasks, computers will take on more and more of that workload.
“For now and in the mid-term we believe the two futures will develop in parallel. But in the long-term, the second future will dominate, and there will be a gradual dismantling of traditional professions," Susskind said.
His advice to concerned accountants was to start with a blank piece of paper and ask yourself how you could do things differently.
“Explore new roles and skills and capabilities and how you can learn them,” he told the Chicago audience. “Most importantly, change your mindset, always ask what part of my work can be undertaken alternatively. You can do things the way you always have done them, but you will be disappointed. Or you can be agnostic on how you solve a problem and think of alternatives.”
Agility trumps ability
As forward thinkers, most of the panellists were receptive to Susskind’s warnings and urged accountants to listen and adapt to his arguments.
“The drumbeat of technology is something that has been going on in our whole lives,” Sleeter told the audience. “If you don’t remain agile to new ways, you’ll be left behind. Agility trumps ability.”
Ron Baker, a long-time challenger of professional habits, was even more enthusiastic: “I love ‘The Future of Professions’. I do believe we’re entering a post-professional society. Professionals certainly won’t be 100% displaced, but they’ll shrink, because a lot of what they do can be turned over to IBM Watson and other deep learning systems and other embedded platforms and I think that will be great for society.”
Both Baker and Joe Woodard gave little succour to those who feared for the impact of automation on accounting jobs. What was more important for them was how you measured the profession’s output and effectiveness.
“Inevitably there will be a displacement of those roles through automation and artificial intelligence,” Woodard said. “This will force the profession to deliver the things computers cannot do. They will purify our profession by taking things over - clients won’t pay for the knowledge in our heads.”
Instead, he saw the profession returning to its original calling where accountants are paid to serve humanity with their intellectual capital. “The thing to protect is our clients, not our profession,” Woodard continued. “If supporting small business is to disrupt the profession, so be it. Meet the needs of small business and we’ll figure out how to adapt.”
The pricing debate
One of the first questions for the panel concerned how the rise of automation would affect pricing within the profession. Would a shift from the billable hour to value-based pricing mitigate the effects, the questioner asked. In a surprise twist, he excluded Ron Baker, the great champion of value pricing, from the question as he had heard what he had to say before.
More jibes came Baker’s way from ICB president Garry Carter, who said the issue had regularly been raised among bookkeepers, many of whom had adopted a payment by instalment model where the costs were amortised over the period of the engagement. “Ron comes up with marvellous name for it and it becomes a fashion,” he said.
“What you have got to do is provide a new service, whether you charge for that service by hour, week, fixed fee or whatever calculation. You’ve got to get a computer to do the work of an accountant. OK - we’ve got to do a job as professionals to persuade businesses not to see accountants as an anvil around our neck, but one of the most important tools of making a business successful.
“This is why we’re winning out at my level of profession, because we’re there day in, day out. We have a great relationship with clients. We don’t see them once a quarter.”
When he did get a chance to fight his corner, Baker was uncompromising: “The bottom line is if we’re moving into the cloud and we’re able to do more work in less time, you better move away from the billable hour otherwise your revenue and profits will shrink. Pricing happens after you create value. If you're not creating value good pricing isn’t helping you, because your customers won’t see the value and won’t pay. You have to be innovative and know what clients want at a deep level. You can’t do those things if you’re focusing on billable hours.”
Trust and the human touch
Bringing a Francophone perspective to the Anglo-American dialogue, William Nahum played the “market will decide” card but also invoked one of the key arguments professionals use to counter the Susskind argument - the human factor.
“What is the market looking for and what is the speed of consumer adaptation and demand?” he asked. “The profession, we can change. It’s our jobs, it’s our revenue - we’ve got to change. But what if the market says it is not ready? They say, ‘We want you. We want a human being.’”
Gary Boomer agreed: “You can’t teach the relationship part.” Adapting to technological change has always been a challenge for professionals. The best way to respond was by being complete person, committed to life-long learning, he said.
But Susskind had heard the objections before, and not just from accountants. Professionals often explain the importance of interpersonal skills to the work they do, and that automation can’t do away with that.
“They are arguments from hard cases - the problem least likely to be solved by automation,” Susskind said. “You do lots of things in your job. Face-to-face may be part of it, but it’s only part. It’s not the only thing you do.”
The market would drive change, he agreed, but challenged the other panellists on whether the recipients of accounting services really wanted interpersonal, face-to-face contact. “I question whether the next generation of people reared on screens will demand that,” he argued.
On the issue of trust, Joe Woodard thought the answer Susskind’s challenge was to “stop asking the question what computers can’t do that humans can and ask instead, what will people insist humans do that computers can’t?”
But even here, Susskind cited Joseph Eisenbaum’s research that showed that some people were more comfortable confiding in anonymous expert systems than humans. And in another blow against the profession’s inflated self-image, he pointed out that most accountants struggled with even the most basic task of filling out a timesheet accurately.
“It’s a mistake to believe professions have a monopoly or are uniquely placed to attain trustworthiness. Is it trust, or is it reliability? In a world with technology, there may be other ways to apply trustworthiness,” he said.
Fighting the last war?
Gary Boomer pointed out during the conversation that accountancy had already changed from the traditional, partner-led model and become a team sport marked by diversity and a new balance between the genders. Then a participant from the audience pointed out that seven middle-aged white guys were on stage, while a majority of those in the audience and the wider profession were female.
After the session, ‘The Radical CPA’ author Jody Padar told AccountingWEB she was unmoved by the comments from the panellists. After hearing Garry Carter’s observations on the superior numbers and skills of female bookkeepers, she likened him to “the Donald Trump of bookkeeping”.
The panellists came from a generation that prospered during the PC revolution and was now switching horses to cloud-based practice models. Rather than talking about it at conferences, her virtual firm included a strong contingent of women who were doing things the experts talked about. “We’re living it,” she said.
To give Susskind the final word, he agreed that we’re beginning to see the emergence of people and institutions who have very little regard for the way professions have traditionally behaved, whether it’s pricing, or face-to-face contact. “We’re fortunate. We should be excited about using technology to solve problems and make the solutions more affordable.”
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