Are Profound Changes for the Profession Ahead?

September/October 2016

NSPE Today: Outlook
Are Profound Changes for the Profession Ahead?



What does it mean to be in a profession? Even if you don’t buy their arguments about what lies ahead, Richard and Daniel Susskind’s provocative recent book The Future of the Professions does a good job of defining the basics.

Whether you are talking about engineering or the law, financial services or medicine, they posit, professions share the following characteristics:

  • Members of professions possess specialist knowledge, experience, skills, and know-how that they make available to others who don’t possess such expertise;
  • Members’ livelihoods consist of effectively applying their technical expertise and practical experience to providing solutions that meet the needs of nonprofessionals;
  • Admission to the profession depends upon credentials or licenses;
  • Members’ activities are regulated, either by external authorities (regulatory boards) or self-regulation (via internally developed codes and standards), or some combination of the two; and
  • Beyond the “letter of the law” within which they must operate, members are governed by a common set of shared values (for example, the doctor’s obligation to “first do no harm”).

That third characteristic warrants further consideration. Professions, the authors say, are governed by a “grand bargain” with society. Professionals are awarded a limited monopoly; they are granted legal exclusivity over the right to perform specifically defined professional practices. In exchange, they are obliged to place societal interests above individual or commercial self-interest. And they are expected, nay required, to keep their knowledge and skills current.

So far so good. Little controversy there.

But the Susskinds take their analysis further. No system is fixed or immune from change. Before the means to document knowledge in written form existed, professionals were the shamans of the tribe, and the limit of professional knowledge was what they could carry in their heads and orally pass on to their successors. The advent of the printing press vastly increased the ability to collect, perfect, and share professional knowledge, and professionals were those limited few who could access it and devoted their lives to mastering it. Later, the digitization of knowledge vastly increased the ability to access and share knowledge, within the profession and beyond. As the problems professionals aimed to solve increased in complexity, portions of the professional’s previously exclusive domain could be safely delegated to paraprofessionals, who were often (but not always) novices aspiring to rise beyond these basic tasks to professional stature.

Far from diminishing the professional’s role, the digitization of knowledge only increased the strength of the grand bargain: It enabled professionals to devote their attention and valuable expertise only where it was truly needed and truly added value, freeing them from the routine elements of the work that could be competently and safely performed by others. Paralegals did the research; lawyers could spend their time on strategy setting and execution of legal representation. Doctors could focus on diagnosis and identifying the proper course of treatment, and not “waste” their valuable time on testing the patient’s vitals or seeing that the prescribed medicines and treatments were followed.

Technology is a major driver. A CAD program, used by a competent employee and with oversight from the licensed professional, can perform drafting tasks faster and with more accuracy and consistency than manual drafting.

Economics is an equally important factor. Consumers of legal services are increasingly unwilling to pay a law firm partner’s hourly fee for work that could just as easily be done by a less costly paralegal.

With the digitization of knowledge, the professional was no longer responsible for doing it all, but was (and is) still responsible for the outcome. The trick is maintaining the proper balance, leveraging the capacity to delegate or automate with proper attention to the professional’s obligation under the grand bargain.

That balance is not fixed: It changes constantly as the means to provide for a given need are also improving.

Routine tasks can be automated. But technology is also disrupting (the authors prefer to label it “innovating”) professional services in unexpected ways. The ubiquitous ATM isn’t merely the automation of a preexisting function within established financial services. Banks didn’t previously provide staff on every corner to dispense cash on a 24-hour-a-day basis. The ability to provide such service was entirely new, and a creation of technology.

What are the implications for the professional engineer? Unclear, but there certainly will be changes … changes enabled by technology, driven by economics, and with every likelihood of not being limited to automation of existing processes.

Which is why it is so significant that NSPE President Kodi Verhalen, P.E., Esq., F.NSPE, has appointed a Future of the Profession Task Force to get out in front of exploring those questions.

Oh, and there was one more thing that the Susskinds identified as a shared characteristic of all the professions. Each of them is certain that profound changes are possible in every other profession, but firm in their conviction that it “could not happen here.” A word to the wise.