Digital Disruption in Professional Services update 1

As the first step in our research into professional services, I spent time over the previous last two weeks interviewing people about the own direct experience of digital disruption. I spoke with a dozen people in Australia working across a range of professional services sectors including accounting, architecture, business consulting and legal (I’m still looking for people working in firms who provide industrial or engineering professional services). With a few exceptions, all the people I interviewed were in internal support roles.

The overall picture painted was of an industry that has for the most part remained unchanged at its core. Email remains the electronic collaboration tool of choice and old fashioned relationship management remains critical to the business model. But while the wholesale disruption of the sector was not immediately evident in the first hand experiences of the people interviewed, I did see a number of candidates of emerging change in professional services that are worth further investigation:

  1. Working more efficiently and with greater flexibility
  2. Client relationship management using social media and social networking
  3. Digital knowledge workers

These are my initial observations about these three issues:

How is technology creating pressure to work more efficiently and with great flexibility?

A combination of technology capabilities are starting to eat away at existing work practices and business models, although the level of impact is ultimately being decided by clients rather than the firms themselves. Many of the people I interviewed felt that the high-touch, knowledge-intensive end of the consulting and advisory spectrum would remain generally untouched but at the other end there was evidence of subtle but permanent changes to work practices and organisational structures.

Interestingly, many of the non-client facing staff I interviewed felt they were better prepared for new world of efficiency and flexibility than the client facing counterparts they supported. Changes to work practices and organisational structure were also perceived as being particularly challenging to leadership and management models.

How is social media and social networking actually changing the way firms manage relationships with clients?

For sometime social media has either been ignored by leaders in Australian professional services firms or used for very specific purposes like recruitment, marketing or public relations. But again client behaviour is beginning to force some firms and key people within them to engage more actively on social media and social networks. In simplistic terms, if your clients keep sending you LinkedIn requests and you do not have a profile, how long are you going to keep ignoring them?

But I think this is less about the tools themselves and more about understanding how much of a material impact online engagement and reputation will actually have on the fundamentals of professional services in Australia.

How are firms meeting the expectations of a generation of digital workers?

This relates not just to the younger cadre of new and upcoming professionals but a firm’s experienced workforce more generally. On one hand this expectation is common to other industries where people have now had direct experience of superior personal computing technology and want the same in the workplace. But I also heard a variety of stories and experiences that point to specific changes in people’s attitude towards the traditional career path and work style offered by professional services.

This issue is also related to the other points above – for some people, a workplace that is efficient, flexible and engaged online offers an exciting new model for professional services.

Next Steps

We are applying our own iterative discovery method to this research project. Taking into account the feedback from research participants and other advisors to the project, we will be finalising the focus areas and approach for the next phase in coming weeks – watch for updates on this blog.

In the meantime, feedback is welcome via the comments on this post or to me directly. Please also get in contact if you would like to participate in this research project.