Insights from the professional services round tables on digital disruption

As part of our digital disruption in professional services research project, two round table sessions were held in Melbourne (May 2015) and Sydney (September 2015). The sessions included people from a range of firms and affiliated professionals from across accounting, architecture, business consulting, engineering and legal.

About the round table process

The round tables were facilitated with questions to prompt conversation on key themes in the research that covered:

  • the role and impact of technology;
  • clients and how firms operate; and
  • careers and professional development.

Within these framing questions there was room to explore emerging themes. For this reason neither of the two round tables was exactly the same.

In addition to the conversational part of the round table, participants also helped with a short empathy map exercise that is being used as an input into what will become some rudimentary ‘personas’. Reflective comments from some participants were also received after the round table sessions.

Synthesis

Applying Chatham House Rules, rather than this post being a verbatim report or session capture I will focus on the insights generated from the discussion.

From this synthesis, three high level issues are apparent:

  1. Technology is not the only driver of change in professional services (although I think it could be argued that drivers such as globalisation are themselves indirectly technology driven).
  2. While some specific technologies have changed certain professional services sectors, for the most part technology is seen as causing more problems than it solves – despite promises, it does not always make work more efficient.
  3. Perhaps the most obvious impact of technology is that the traditional career model is starting to be eroded, while at the same time new careers paths in professional services are also beginning to appear.

Resistance to technology and the new practice or business models it could potentially support were primarily viewed as originating in the culture of firms and the professions. Productisation (see the post about PwC’s Nifty R&D) in particular is looked down at and seen as participating in “commerce”, not practice.

There is also an overwhelming expectation that technology just needs to work and should be simple to use. The empathy map exercise, completed individually as a reflective exercise, resulted in some fairly consistent but polarised stories that also supported this point of view. In my experience the desire that enterprise technology should be easy to use in not restricted to professional services, but it is an acute viewpoint in this sector.

As was highlighted in the social media review, the consensus from the round table participants was that professional services at its peak remains high-touch and relationship based. However, there was also some hope or expectation that generational change within professional services and clients will also create change in the industry. Ultimately even if the industry does not want to change, they will follow the lead of clients who are becoming more sophisticated (including using social media themselves and using data driven insights to manage service providers) in their approach to managing their professional services relationships.

What was less uncertain was how or the degree to which the industry would ultimately be disrupted. Perhaps the most concerning point of change was around career and professional development. Extrapolating the impact of automation, some participants felt there would be fewer opportunities for graduates to develop expertise.

The sum total impact of the digitisation of professional services (including automation) is already forcing some firms to work more effectively and efficiently, creating subtle changing to operating models. Better technology could give firms an advantage where it supported collaborative work practices and the ability to use the collective capabilities and knowledge of their firms, but only if that technology can meet expectations (for examples of how this is already changing the design of professional services workplaces, see the site visits to Hall & Wilcox and Arup).

Key Insights

  • Participants maintain that the relationship aspects of professional services remain impervious to change, although expertise-based and relationship-centric roles may become more concentrated.
  • A combination of technology advances in automation against a broader backdrop of globalisation appear to be more substantive drivers of change, although at this point they are reshaping the sector rather than truly disrupting (and I imagine as natural language processing and machine learning comes of age it will have a similar effect).
  • The most significant disruption may ultimately be on careers and professional development.

Based on this discussion, if we think of digital disruption in professional services as a reshaping process, rather that an explosive change, then we may see as many opportunities as there are threats to the status quo. For example, the number of people following a traditional professional services career might shrink, but new roles and alternative business models are appearing. The effectiveness of end-user technology (including social media) to augment rather than replace the practices of people working in professional services is still an untapped opportunity in most cases.

Research Project Next Steps

This research project is now coming to an end and in the next final few posts I will be sharing a set of empathy maps and my final analysis on digital disruption in professional services.

Feature image credit: Georgie Pauwels CC-BY