I have spoken recently to two senior leaders, one in retail, the other in professional services. Both were clear that they are looking to automation for the cost benefits it can deliver. So they would be replacing jobs currently done by entry-level staff with automation.

What neither had, was a working model for what their industry would look like when automation really took over. Why does this matter and what do I think they should be looking at?

Technological change tends to happen very slowly until suddenly it starts to speed up and then becomes very fast indeed. Think of the internet’s timeline to understand the pace and challenges facing our businesses now.

The Internet Society dates early thinking on interconnectedness as starting in the early 1960s, the first email software was written in 1972, I joined one of the early internet providers in the early 1990s in the States – and yet emails didn’t really take off in the UK until around 1995 and even by 2000, many quite significant businesses still did not have a website. That’s 40 years of development.

Compare this slow start to the speed of ecommerce development in just the last two years – Amazon has a significant new feature every few months it seems. And as consumers, our appetite for using the internet for home and business use is exponential.

I talked in a recent blog about how eight years ago, the world’s experts on artificial intelligence said driverless cars would not happen in the next ten years. Two years short of this, there is a Google driverless car making its way across America.

Digital technology is beginning to move extremely fast. Yet business leaders have not caught up with the impact on their business model or the implications for recruitment and people structures.

For retailers it’s not too complex to think about their future workforce. They are already automating check-outs and we’re all getting used to “unexpected item in bagging area!”

But professional services? What can they automate? This review of the top 10 professional services firms automation software shows they can automate a lot more than you might think.

The people who run professional service firms, the lawyers, the accountants, the architects, are already working hard to utilize the available tools to “take cost out of the business”. Most of what these firms do at a junior to middle management level is very rules based.

Auditors input data and look for errors and omissions. They compare what company accountants have done against a set of rules they ought to have followed. Junior lawyers scan documents and look for inconsistencies and precedent. All of these activities apply rules. In many ways machines do this much better than humans and they do it faster and more consistently.

Only when you get to the point of making judgments does experience start to pay off. That’s when you need senior and expensive people. But you don’t need many of them and you don’t need them that often.

So a whole series of questions arise from this which I believe no-one is really thinking about

  • Much of the revenue for professional services firms comes from the work done by the juniors, not from the meetings with the partners. If all the work is done by machines, will clients still be prepared to pay the same amount for a few hours of a partner’s time for the final interpretation of data and a bit of advice?
  • The senior partners were all juniors once. So where in the future will you find the senior people? The machines will keep getting smarter and smarter and so the number of activities you will need senior people for will shrink. Maybe your audit partner does become a smart robot in the end – though I doubt they would take you out to lunch!
  • Are any of the HR people in professional services firms starting to plan for this future?
  • What will happen to all those bright young graduates? What jobs will there be for them? What should they be studying now?
  • And not least, at what point should graduate recruitment change? Personnel Today highlights that the milk round process has already changed significantly (using far more digital technology!) but who is looking strategically at the numbers to recruit?

I am in the process of researching and writing a paper on how boards are addressing the impact of artificial intelligence on their businesses (this blog about the role of leadership teams, explains more). I would welcome talking to your directors if you have questions or would like to contribute – or to hear your own views.