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The Coming Battle of the Professions

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The Coming Battle of the Professions

I wonder how many people standing on railway platforms this morning, waiting for the 7:36 to take them from their suburb to their...

13 Minutes Read

I wonder how many people standing on railway platforms this morning, waiting for the 7:36 to take them from their suburb to their desk, have a sense that another type of platform is about to radically challenge the bourgeois, white collar work that puts food on their table, and chardonnay in their fridge. Very few, I would hazard a guess. Probably too busy finalizing the presentation for the 9:30 meeting, or simply catching up on the weekend’s football results, most accountants, lawyers, doctors, consultants, et cetera, et cetera, have no idea that their solid, predictable “professions” are in the path of a hurricane that has the potential to upend norms that we think of as platonic, but which in reality, may simply be temporary aberrations.

The platform of which I speak is the Internet based supply/demand matching algorithm, perfected by Uber, airbnb, and Spotify (amongst others), but now beginning to be deployed in areas of the economy far beyond hiring taxis, renting apartments, and listening to music.

Internet based supply/demand matching algorithms (herein after referred to as a “platform”, there being, oddly, no other name for it) are a phenomena thought to be understood, but, which IMvHO, are wildly misunderstood. And misunderestimated, as someone once said.

To fully understand the trajectory of the hurricane it is worth (re)examining for a moment what Uber has done, and how it has done it…

Pre Uber, ordering a taxi was a two option undertaking; stand in the street and put your hand in the air, or phone up a taxi service. Both options had their charms - particularly the former; scoring a taxi late at night on a busy street, leaving the other poor suckers standing, was one of life’s great joys. But both, in retrospect, were somewhat sub-optimal. Ordering a taxi, post Uber, requires taping a smart phone app once or twice. (Perhaps three times - though that will tend to enrage).

Uber - in techno-biz jargon - has collapsed the information supply chain, reduced ordering friction, delighted the customer, and in doing so made out like a bandit. Ex-CEO, Travis Kalanick, is worth $5.5bn.

Not surprisingly, Uber’s success has inspired a host of imitations and derivations; this is a nice compilation of some of the major ones.

Now, think about how we order a lawyer or a doctor and how we as the customer experience the interaction with the “service provider”. To make this simple, I’ll recount a recent trip to a doctor;

  • Get a referral from another doctor
  • Search the web for the doctor’s phone number and address
  • Call up the doctor; wait on hold for seven minutes; explain who I am and why I’m calling.
  • Provide my health insurance details.
  • Make appointment.
  • Attend appointment (five weeks later).
  • Wait in waiting room for 35 minutes.
  • Provide my health insurance details.
  • Explain who I am and why I’m there.
  • Go into doctor’s consulting room.
  • Have my vitals taken.
  • Explain to the physician’s assistant who I am and why I’m there.
  • Wait 10 minutes for the doctor to come in. Explain who I am and why I’m there.
  • Following the consult, make another appointment, explaining who I am and why I’m there.
  • 10 weeks later, receive a bill detailing - in Greek - the services I received, and my outstanding (post insurance recovery) costs.

Though this process has its charms (everyone is always terribly nice, and it’s comforting to be in “professional hands”) it’s not hard to see how sub-optimal this state of affairs is. The information supply chain is long, complicated, and opaque, friction abounds, and delighting the customer is literally the last thing on anybody’s mind.

Though this is a little mise-en-scene from the medical world, similar scenarios are common across the worlds of accounting, and the law, architecture and engineering. In pre-platform environments, information asymmetry rules (i.e. sellers know more than buyers, and exploit this fact), the “fog of war” is real (i.e. things are made deliberately complicated and confusing), and resistance is futile (i.e. most normal people lose the will to live in the midst of the interaction and end up acquiescing to whatever it is the provider suggests; which of course is what is best commercially for the provider). In pre-platform markets, supply/demand matching is haphazard, imperfect, and intrinsically confrontational, with outsize rewards frequently accruing to the actor that most brazenly acts worse.

As we frequently like to say here at the Center for the Future of Work, things sucking are the real mother of invention. These scenarios clearly suck, and are, we would suggest, ripe for reinvention.

Cometh the hour, cometh the platform.

Before we go further, we should acknowledge that the notion “Uber for X” has been around for some time. And, that attempts at the Uberficiation of healthcare have clearly failed. Companies like Pager, Doctor on Demand, and Klara (to name but a few) have all ridden a blaze of VC cash and paid media to claim that their strategy for 21st century medicine is the approach that will unlock decades of gridlock and inefficiency. All of them though have slunk away to think again, in the face of obstacles that were, they came to appreciate, much greater than they had ever imagined possible. More recently, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMC, have invested in forming a new healthcare provider targeted at lowering costs for the three companies’ employees. It’s prognosis is currently uncertain, and rumors about its health run like a virus through the medical industry.

These stumbles, and the non-appearance of other platform based business with success comparable to Uber, has led some to rubbish the entire concept, and claim that platforms were simply a pre-techlash techno utopian bubble.

In my - again, very humble - opinion, this is a big misread, and the result of a short term focus which misses the long arc of technological business development. Seen through a short term prism, platforms which deliver pizzas and laundry and graphic design are trivialities and novelties. Failed attempts to scale them into bigger, more strategically important areas, signal the “ceilings” of their growth. The commanding heights of business - the professions - remain immune to their influence and power. Our commuters on the 7:36 can rest easy with their PowerPoints and news apps.

What this view misses are five long developing dynamics - important independently, but profound together, and now combinatorially growing exponentially - that, like the tides developing, unseen, far out at sea, are coming closer and closer to shore, and are set to change local sailing conditions;

  • The network is ubiquitous - after 70 years of computing, 40 years of networking, 25 years of the Internet, 20 years of smartphones, 10 years of iPhones, and with 5G imminent, every working professional person is most reductively, a node on the network
  • Metcalfe’s Law is the law - within the network, the more people use it, the more useful it becomes to those users; being on the wrong network generates irrelevance.
  • There are no jurisdictions in cyberspace - the Great Firewall of China is the exception, not the norm.
  • In networks, rewards trickle up - networks expand the pool of supply, overmatch demand, and predominately deliver value to “superstars” and platform owners.
  • Software “robots” will do all “robotic” work - though most media attention focuses on the sexy/fun/scary nature of AI and automation (Atlas, Weebo, Sophia et al), the real impact of AI on work will be from the spread of robotic process automation (RPA) into the back (and increasingly front) offices of large corporations. Insurance claim adjudication, legal discovery, medical diagnosis, and many other aspects of bourgeois work will soon be exclusively undertaken by software.

Uber for X in high end professional work failed because the work processes were too complicated to be placed on a “simple” supply/demand matching platform. Once the introduction of RPA software (and associated business process engineering) has streamlined and simplified these processes however - stripping away decades old barnacles of human generated work around and tactical fixes; “atomizing the job into its myriad tasks” - they then will be suitable to be placed on platforms. This will be the catalyst for turning an unfulfilled theory into a very real reality. The lock will have been unpicked.

With this formula in place, professionals will exist in global supply/demand matching networks, where buyers source “atomised”, decomposed “tasks”, which sellers (in Harrogate, England and Salto, Uruguay) offer on a real-time on-demand basis, competing on speed, cost and network based rating (a la Uber driver ratings). Being on the wrong network will be professional suicide. Not being on a network at all will signal retirement.

With these dynamics in lock step the world of professional work is set to be entirely different from what commuters around the world have taken for granted for the last c.150 years;

  • RPA software will de-couple humans from algorithmic “if this then that” programming.
  • Pre-platform professional work will be seen as IFTT programs encased in nice clothes. And pensions.
  • Human judgement will become a commodity. The price premium that it can demand will wither.
  • Tasks will replace jobs.
  • Gigs will replace careers.
  • Friction will fade.
  • Location, location, location will be subsumed by availability, availability, availability.
  • Personal networks will collapse against the network.
  • Virtual personal brands will dominate over organic, natural personalities.

In time Uber will come to be a seen for what it really is; the canary in the goldmine, the warm up act, the overture before the symphony begins. Professional work - the work that most people reading this piece do - is set to experience the hurricane of the platform. Knowledge is set to go the way of The Knowledge.

Uber has been great for riders. Good for many Uber drivers. Terrible for traditional taxi drivers.

Before I go on, I should say one thing. What I have described above - wonderful or alarming as it may be - is the natural outcome of the pervasiveness of our networked world. There are no examples of a networked environment not ending up with these results. None. Regular readers will know that I am not one to scare the horses unnecessarily. For clicks and giggles. If I am wrong, please show me. I would be delighted to be enlightened.

There are two likely things that happen next;

1. Professional people remain oblivious to these trends, and lost to their PowerPoints and football scores, keep on commuting, until the day they realize the, ahem, gig is up.

2. Professional people - who are after all, mainly quite smart - realize that global platforms and RPA herald a diminishment of their place in the pecking order and institute approaches that keep barbarians at the door. Or should I say, more accurately, reinstitute approaches that keep barbarians at the door…

Scenario 1 could happen - the EPL is set for a thrilling finish this year and life is sort of short. But, in my (as you know) extremely humble opinion, Scenario 2 is what will happen. The “guilds” will organize, reflex their somewhat atrophied muscle and rebel against the rise of their robot overlords. Lawyers and accountants and consultants may be the professionals doing the RPA deals that put mortgage processing “professionals” and others out of business, but when the RPA from LexisNexis puts lawyers out of business, the suddenly enlightened bourgosie will say, “no mas … not on my watch”. When RPA breaks jobs into tasks and when capabilities are codified and placed on global platforms, professional associations such as the American and/or British Medical Association, the National Conference of Bar Examiners, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (et cetera, et cetera) will do what they have done time after time in the face of threats from outsiders, and reassert the need for localized training and accreditation. Post-work watering holes will be full of talk of “mutually assured destruction”, and professional cartels the world over will circle the wagons. No mas; not on our watch.

And in doing so, these professionals will expose the grand hypocrisy that is at the heart of bourgeois life in late stage western capitalism - that technology driven market based disruption is a natural unstoppable force, which nobody in their right mind should stand in the way of. Unless it threatens our pocketbooks and access to supplies of Castella della Sala “Cervaro” 2012 from Umbria (the world’s best chardonnay I’m informed). Then it should be fought with our all of professional might.

This battle of the professions - coming to an office near you soon - is the next (underreported stage) of the AI revolution. Platforms are transformational because of their power - their technological and commercial brilliance. Much human work is generated by inefficiency; “friction” in whatever system you work within is the source of your paycheck. Platforms reduce these inefficiencies, reduce this friction. In doing so they reduce the need for much human labor. Lawyers and doctors exist in worlds of outsize inefficiency, but in reducing these inefficiencies - which in public they support, but in private they fret about - they would be killing the geese that lay the golden eggs e.g. the partnerships. (Or as Annie Hall’s friend Alvy Singer put it more succinctly, “My brother thinks he’s a chicken. I’d turn him in, but I need the eggs”).

Companies like Catalant and Freelancer and Toptal and Envato will continue on their journey to introduce platforms into high end professional work. But the man or woman on the 7:36 will likely continue to head to the office of their accounting firm. That way (relative) safety lies. For the meantime …

Meanwhile, the hurricane continues to develop …


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