The professions need to refocus on ethos

Martin Martinoff
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The finance profession has undergone a rapid period of change, and this will only accelerate.

On the one hand, automation and artificial intelligence are seen as bogeymen threatening jobs – and not only manual or repetitive tasks.

A 2014 Oxford University study put finance professionals at very high risk, with an over 90 per cent likelihood of many accounting tasks being automated, while a PwC report earlier this year suggested up to a third of all jobs would be mechanised by 2030.

Even if jobs are not lost, they will change, as machines take over not just compliance and other data-based tasks, but pattern-recognition and decision-making through machine learning.

At the same time, professional services careers are changing radically. Traditionally, careers were framed within a hierarchical structure leading to partnership.

These days, employees are less likely to patiently work their way up the corporate ladder in one place or sector, while employers can sometimes see this desire for more than one career path as a sense of entitlement, creating a growing expectation gap – ultimately leading to high staff turnover.

With jobs changing on the one hand, and careers on the other, what does this mean for the future professional?

Professionals are now required to look beyond their current skill set and focus on lifelong learning.

A number of studies are currently underway into what skills the future professional will need, and how these can be developed, such as those by the UK Government Office for Science, the OECD, and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Traditionally, the professions focused on technical expertise – one might typically spend hours training in specialist areas to qualify as an accountant or a lawyer.

However, companies are increasingly looking for individuals who can be charismatic, influential and good communicators – those who can operate in a new environment of networked teams.

There is also a real need for modern professionals to be tech-savvy, and understand the constantly evolving modern global marketplace. And none of this negates the skills base that is still necessary in order to operate.

Professional expertise, in other words, is becoming both much broader and less immediately definable at a time when the professions themselves are under threat.

The original idea of the professions was not just to guarantee levels of expertise, but to share something above and beyond technical skill that furthered the public good.

The first component of this is ethics. All professions share the fact that they have both an ethical code and are regulated – held to standards exceeding the requirements of the law. This is how we underpin trust, whether from clients or society.

The second strand is purpose. As a society, we trust that the professions have a purpose beyond making money, whether that is safeguarding public health, ensuring the operation of the judicial system, or underpinning confidence in business.

And a third aspect is identity. A defining characteristic of a professional is a higher loyalty, beyond obligation to their employer, that binds them together as a connected community – both with fellow practitioners, and increasingly with the wider professional sphere.

Taken together we might term these “ethos”.

In an environment where the professions are under threat, refocusing on the core principles could be the best way to ensure that they remain relevant in the twenty-first century marketplace.

The technical aspects of work will change, and rapidly. But the clients of tomorrow will still need people they can trust.