Accountants face the future
To paraphrase the great economist JM Keynes: “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.”
The full version of this quote appears in the introduction of The Future of the Professions, a new book written by the father-son duo of Richard and Daniel Susskind. The book focuses, as it title suggests, on the ways technology and automation will transform how professions and professionals work.
Automation isn’t new. The Industrial Revolution was nothing if not a systematic automation of craftsmanship, for instance. The big leap into the unknown now, however, is the existence of computers that can think, learn and now, through innovations in affective computing, “feel”. These machines are muscling in on work we’ve presumed to be the sole province of human expertise.
The accountancy profession has repeatedly been targeted and diagnosed as ripe for automation. The recent BBC series on automation put the likelihood of accountancy’s automation in the next 20 years at 95%.
For accountants who are late in their careers, this might not mean much. For those at the beginning or middle of their career trajectory, the picture could seem unrelentingly grim. Luckily, diagnoses like the BBC’s are somewhat simplistic summaries of a much more complex change taking place not within just accountancy, but professional services as a whole.
“For all young people entering into the professions,” Daniel Susskind told AccountingWEB, “what I would say is, if you’re entering any of the professions wanting to practise it the way your parents or your grandparents did, you’re going to be disappointed.”
Susskind, an economist who lectures at Balliol College, Oxford, says the book was, in many ways, written for young professionals. And his message is actually quite hopeful. “On the other hand, if you enter these professions saying ‘I want to solve problems and I’m agnostic about how I do that’, then I think your work could be very fulfilling. Very often, people are disappointed when they turn up to these professions and the work doesn’t look anything like they expected.
“What’s clear is that the job of being an accountant will change significantly. If the tasks that make up the profession are going to change, you want to join a firm or institution that is open minded about what it means to be an accountant.”
In Susskind’s view, professions like accountancy suffer from a “status quo bias”. As it says in the Future of the Professions, “They accept the professions in general are in need of change, but they maintain that their own particular fields are immune”.
“We exhibit a preference for the way we’ve always done things and a reverence for traditions,” explains Susskind. And according to him this reverence comes at a high price. “The expertise of a few is bestowed upon a few. We seem to have a Rolls-Royce service for the minority,” argue the Susskinds in their book.
A central thesis of The Future of the Professions is that most people cannot access affordable expertise. “Expertise has been traditionally locked up in the heads of professionals or stored away in their filing cabinets,” said Susskind. “What technology allows is far more affordable access to that expertise.” But technology will not only change the way we consume expertise – but also the notion of “the expert” itself.
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Susskind describes a broadening of the competitive playing field, although this won’t necessarily pit professional against professional. “The competition that kills you doesn’t look like you,” he explains, echoing a famous quote by his father Richard. “My experience from researching the book is that the most exciting change isn’t necessarily happening within the professions, but rather outside them.
“These are people and institutions outside the professions who are tackling the same problems but doing it in a much different way.”
What does this mean for regulation, then? Accountancy is controlled and there are authorities in place. These systems are remnants of a system that the Susskinds describe as “the grand bargain”.
The philosopher Donald Schon explains the bargain as: “In return for access to their extraordinary knowledge in matters of great human importance, society has granted [professionals] a mandate for social control in their fields of specialisation, a high degree of autonomy in their practice, and a license to determine who shall assume the mantle of professional authority.”
According to the Susskinds, this was designed for the 19th century, and the grand bargain is becoming increasingly invalidated. But despite being an unabashed advocate for decentralised professions, Susskind stresses a difference between liberalisation and de-regulation.
“We’re not advocating de-regulation,” he explained. “We’re calling for giving different kinds of people and institutions a chance to solve the problems that the professions have usually addressed. That doesn’t mean a free-for-all.
“What we need is a new regulatory framework that reflects the reality that different kinds of people are solving the problems that only the professions used to be able to solve.”
What do you think of Daniel and Richard Susskind’s thoughts on the future of the profession? Have you read the book?