The professions are central to society and the economy. People trust professionals and expect them to behave ethically. Professional practitioners enjoy elevated social status, often earned through attendance at elite schools known for their quality and economic class associations.
Professional practitioners– like lawyers, doctors and members of the clergy– possess specialized knowledge. Their knowledge is both abstract and applied. They have formal credentials. Historically, professionals earned credentials by serving apprenticeships. Now, most professions require candidates to acquire a specified education and to take official examinations to gain entrance. Regulations give professionals a monopoly and govern their practices. The public expects professionals to follow specific codes of ethics and conduct.
Society enters into a grand bargain with professionals. It treats them as authorities and gives them license to do things that others cannot. For example, it allows only doctors to operate on people. Professionals practice in areas beyond the competence of those without specialized expertise. Society expects more of professionals.
In a print-based civilization, professions were essential for sharing knowledge. Today, the professions don’t serve society well. Few people can afford high-quality professional services. Professions use outmoded methods of knowledge creation and distribution. Entry and knowledge barriers make it difficult for average citizens to know if their professionals serve them well.
Technology Changes The Professions
Technology changes individual professions. In medicine, the Internet lets patients use search engines like Doctor on Demand to review their symptoms or to access computerized diagnostic software. Doctors use telemedicine to treat patients, information technology to review journals, crowdsourcing for research and DNA scanning for insight into physical conditions.
In education, personalized software helps tailor lessons for individual students. Software platforms enable teachers to hold classes at a distance. Religious scholars use computers and information technology to reassemble fragmented documents and to make sacred texts widely available.
The legal profession provides services online, including dispute mediation. Search technology and computerized, digitized legal documents accelerate legal research. Information technology has transformed journalism. Since 2008, more Americans get their news online than from a newspaper. More than a billion people share news, links, and videos via social media. Traditionally, the professions provided intensely personal service. People consulted professionals only when they needed help. As standardization changes the professions, access to professional services becomes more direct.
Today, people who offer professional services must do more with less and use technology to improve their efficiency. For example, automation and innovation have brought major changes. Automation lets professionals focus on complex, challenging questions instead of on routine chores. Innovation introduces new options with pluses and minuses. An ATM does not replace a human teller, but it does perform deposits and withdrawals at all hours.
Professionals must deal with much more data, mine it, analyze it, build models with it, and more. As technology displaces some elements of a profession and changes others, professional work gets reconfigured. As technology replaces existing middlemen, new ones intrude. That is part of the ongoing process of decomposition. For instance, a manufacturer might still sell a certain computer, but now its individual components are being made in many different places.
Now, practitioners break up their professional tasks, and less-expensive employees– who could be anywhere– complete certain increments of their work. Paraprofessionals or novice professionals can accomplish more tasks for less money.
New specialists emerge as professional knowledge migrates online. Experienced users share expertise more readily, as with open software. Machines displace certain elements of professional labor. Partnerships were a common professional business model, but they are less common today.
Those who want to contract for professional labor now access it differently than in the past. People may use crowdsourcing to access a wide array of professional expertise. And, rather than turning to word of mouth, users can check a professional’s online referrals and reputation systems. Many users seek online information about their service needs before contacting professionals. They might use specialized software for tax preparation instead of hiring a professional. Some users draw on embedded knowledge, such as journalists who use their software’s editing functions rather than consult an editor.
Professionals and users worry about what will happen if the existing model of the professions erodes. People trust the professionals they hire to maintain high standards. Quasi-trust will replace blanket trust in the professions as users try other models– as with software and online reference materials– and find them reliable.
Professionals also fear that their skills will erode or become lost as automation takes over some professional functions. Automating the making of espresso, for example, reduced baristas’ level of artistry, but produced a cheaper, more uniform coffee. If professionals must practice completing certain tasks to build their mastery, firms could have novices complete those chores even when automation costs less. However, breaking roles into component tasks might reduce work quality and the thoughtfulness of work processes. This could leave some people with repetitive, low-wage jobs. However, change creates new jobs, perhaps allowing people to stay in the same professions with further training. But the professions don’t set out to offer individuals good jobs; they provide expert labor to society.
People fear that technology will remove the personal touch from professional practice. This worry is based on assuming that increased technology reduces interpersonal interaction and that all professionals offer empathy. Even when you want empathy, like when you receive bad news, you may not need an expert to extend it. A paraprofessional might fill that role.
Machines are learning to read and respond to human emotions. Some people may prefer to share their concerns with a machine rather than a person. Since most people cannot afford the older kinds of personal professional service, this point is moot for many.
Such changes may leave the professions without a function or place in society. The time will come when the professions don’t exist as they currently are. Increasingly capable, non-thinking machines will automate, make creative work routine and complete much of it. But society will always need people to assist them, craftspeople and paraprofessionals.
Change creates new roles– knowledge engineers, researchers, data scientists, and more. People need human professionals in relatively small areas, and those will shrink over time. Humans have emotional and ethical capacities that machines can’t match, but affective computing continues to evolve. Scientists may be able to program ethical reasoning. Even if machines could make ethical decisions, people may prefer to use their own judgment. Society is waiting to see which tasks must remain in the human domain. With the technology evolving, you must also learn to adapt. Brand yourself online with this step-by-step checklist.