The Human Implications of AI, Automation and the Digitization of Professional Services Expertise

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Aside from the economic uncertainty that Brexit is throwing at Professional Service Firms (PSFs), PSFs, like many other sectors, are facing volatility from multiple other directions.

The impetus for what is causing PSFs to change faster than at any time in the last century are large transformative processes. They are mega trends with far-reaching and interrelated consequences for society.

Combined, they are causing shifts for the world of business and the way services are delivered. Social change is a driver but digital is the main wave maker.

Digital adoption is essential for market differentiation

The impact of disruption through digitization, tech advances and AI is set to grow. Digital adoption is fast becoming essential for firms to keep – or win – competitive edge.

To adapt to these changes, many PSFs will need to revamp their cultures, business and operating models and people practices. Fail to do this and they’ll risk getting left behind in their markets as their clients and employees go elsewhere.

Transformational factors are shifting the centre of gravity away from traditional delivery models, legacy infrastructures and the old workplace culture

Recommendation: Don’t view digital as ‘just an IT issue’. Get informed on its capabilities and then see it as an accelerator and an opportunity to do business differently and better

Artificial intelligence (AI) and automation companies are hard at work finding ways of developing technology that will manage time-consuming tasks in different industries for better speed and accuracy. New technologies, used right, can serve as assets for growth.

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In the legal profession, AI has already found its way into supporting lawyers and clients alike, beyond just document automation and automated contract drafting platforms. It is even automating creative processes (including some writing) in legal work, forecasting litigation outcomes and assisting with due diligence research.

It’s a similar situation for the accountancy sector. Accountancy Age reports: “It’s expected that by 2020, accounting tasks – including audits, payroll, tax and banking – will be fully automated with the use of AI-based technologies.”

In the architecture sector, technology and automation have soared, now covering all aspects of practice including project delivery, performance, evaluation, and billings.

The impact of digital is already here. IBM Watson is helping doctors to make a better prognosis and even our children are using virtual assistants to perform routine tasks.

There’s a startup that will help you get divorced super fast, and it just raised $3 million. Wevorce’s web-based platform allows couples to go through a collaborative divorce — one in which both partners work together to decide how to split assets and figure out how to co-parent.
— Business Insider

AI won’t replace core professional expertise

But while technology and AI are replacing repetitive manual and cognitive tasks, the machines are not intrinsically ‘intelligent’.

AI has a high IQ but a low EQ, or emotional intelligence. AI can’t think for itself, show imagination or creativity.

These skills are fundamentally social and human-specific. This is why AI medical imaging may help in diagnosis of tumours. But it won’t be able to handle the complexity of care of the patient.

The biggest fear everyone has of AI and technology is its impact on jobs. While some roles in the knowledge-rich professional services sector will be affected due to automation, the essence of its essentially inter-personal work will not.

Artificial intelligence will not replace architects for example. “It’s unfounded that AI can replace humans, especially as designers,” says Patrick Hebron, a user experience designer with Adobe Systems and adjunct graduate professor at New York University. “AI has limited purview into the nature and proclivities of human experience.”

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In accountancy, accountants will be able to use the time saved through AI-based technologies to add insight to the information provided and increase value, allowing them to move towards more legislative and compliance-orientated tasks.

In the legal field, lawyers will still exercise their independent professional judgment and higher-order cognitive skills involving critical thinking and creativity – in a way that tech just can’t. When it comes to actual counselling and courtrooms, there’s no replacing a human lawyer.

But here’s the thing. AI and tech won’t replace lawyers, accountants or architects.

But lawyers accountants or architects who don’t begin to use AI and tech will eventually replace those who don’t…

Digital transformation entails people transformation

In other words, firms that make a strategic decision to embrace new digital business models and services will thrive. Those that resist will face stagnant or reducing revenue streams as they become less competitive.

Firms now need to see digital as a firm strategic change initiative. Predicting adoption rates and how new technology will impact a large and complex industry is quite a difficult thing to do.

Skilling up 'on demand' will now be essential. Those firms that can enable access to online skills development and training for their employees will be more agile and create more value. Developing employees and helping them upgrade their skills is also good for talent retention.

The pace for adoption isn’t set to slow, so it’s important to get informed and look at incorporating scaleable and modular automated tools to increase efficiency. Start small and learn, then build from there.

As your capacity scales up, you as a firm will be more ready to leverage talent and technology. You will then be empowered to develop new service offerings or to deliver your core services in a different way.

People – and their buy-in – will be key to this. There is a need to build a new momentum in the firm that reflects the new reality of the business in which they work.

The questions to ask:

  • What is the real value of digital for your business and how can you capitalise?

  • How can you make human-machine interaction intuitive and efficient across your business?

  • What are the areas in which you can use digital more to improve productivity and profitability?

  • How will you manage the cultural side of digital transformation and prepare people in your firm to adopt new processes, ways of working, and approaches?

The starting point is a structured approach to assessing your digital maturity based on an understanding not just of the technology, but of the ‘big picture’ of what digital engagement means to the business
— EY: The digitisation of everything

Pelorus is an organisational development and leadership consultancy whose focus is the Professional Services Firm or Partnership. An Organisational Development approach can help address the complex web of people levers that digital transformation entails.

sarah monaghan