Are you ready for the era of the member-machine?

Big changes in the workplace are on the way. Membership organisations have always found a way to adapt, but are they ready to adapt again?

In short

  • Machine learning has been compared to the steam engine in terms of the impact it will have on employment
  • Professional organisations need to focus on the unique advantage that comes with being human
  • Where there is automation, there is opportunity 

Futurism may not be an exact science, but it sure can make for some scary reading. It doesn’t take a deep Google search to see that we should all be bracing for a step change in who does work and how they do it.

What’s on the horizon? For his part, Ian Harris of think tank Z/Yen suggests that by 2040 patients will not visit a doctor “unless or until a personal device had opined there was a risk and a need for tests or intervention”.

Meanwhile, “a lawyer would not give an opinion on anything without a machine-based assessment of the legal position and chances of success” and “… most current activities of audit and accountancy will require very little human intervention”.

In fact, for the traditional professions, Harris expects a turn towards multi-disciplinary practices and an integration of previously siloed expertise. There will be fewer specialist roles and more general practitioners and para-professionals (for example, teaching assistants who supervise automatically delivered training and education).

In short, the working world of professions and management will be transformed “dramatically and radically”.                      

Not convinced? Only recently, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney hit the headlines with a speech that compared Uber and machine learning to the spinning jenny and steam engine, which contributed to employment upheaval in the middle of the 19th century.

Silver lining?
Yet, if it sounds daunting, Harris does point out that there will always be limitations to what machines can do. And, ultimately, he believes that opportunities will remain, especially for people in creative and caring occupations, “in particular for people who do work that requires personal and social interaction”.

Other voices have pointed out that setting up automated tasks and methodologies, as well as providing support for their future development, will require human input and direction – all areas in which professional organisations can ensure they have a hand.

Born ready
And remember, too, that dealing with change is nothing new for professional associations. Consider the case of one of the earliest, Italy’s Accademia dei Segreti.

If you thought your own membership criteria are too onerous, spare a thought for would-be sixteenth-century academicians, for whom qualification hinged on discovering a “secret of nature”.

When that society was closed by order of the Inquisition, its founder, Giambattista della Porta, bounced back, and by 1611 had helped establish the Accademia degli Oziosi, a prominent literary academy in Naples.

And, ultimately, both of these groups were the vanguard for a blossoming of scientific and learned societies across Europe – not least in the UK, where the Royal Society was formed in 1660, receiving a Royal Charter two years later from Charles II with the remit of “improving natural knowledge”. Three and a half centuries later, the Society (of which world-wide-web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee is a Fellow) continues to shape the way we use and generate scientific knowledge.

Upheaval and evolution
In fact, many UK professional associations (for example the ICAEW) can trace their roots back to the Industrial Revolution ­– perhaps the mother of British workplace upheaval – and have navigated a course through decades of phenomenal change.

For some it’s been a complicated trip. The Institute of Engineering, for example, counts some 40 organisations in its family tree. Its genealogy reflects integration and consolidation as its initial field of focus – electrical telegraphy – changed in the wake of a stream of innovation.

Members of CIPD belong to an organisation that traces its roots to WWI and concern for the welfare of female munitions workers. It’s gone through a few names and generations since then; its 140,000 members now “champion better work and working lives” for men and women alike.   

As a 2009 report on the state of the British professions noted, many professional bodies grew out of social clubs “formed to provide a forum to exchange ideas on a particular subject without any conscious intention of becoming a regulatory institution”. Yet today they are some of society’s most trusted providers of training, oversight and accreditation.

It’s a process, as they say.

It’s also an evolution, and even newer kids on the block, like the British Computer Society (established in 1957), carry the DNA of the powerful medieval craft and merchant guilds when they lobby for, train and arrange networking events for members.

Opportunity ahead?
Andy Haldane, Bank of England Chief Economist, has noted that: “Debates on the potentially negative impact of technology on jobs … go back at least to the invention of the wheel” and that “As in the past, technology is changing the quantum and nature of work, displacing some jobs while creating others…”

The past gives us another lesson too: we can adapt. Successful professional organisations have always adjusted their direction of travel to suit societal needs and to seize opportunities.

And now, if machines can compute and correlate, we’ll need to make the most of the unique advantage that comes with being human: the ability to empathise and personalise, to imagine, care and create. The tools may have changed, but our desire as humans to connect hasn’t.

If future members are not machines, machines will undoubtedly have an effect on membership, but it’s not time to throw in the towel. It’s time to consider how to support members as they face the next wave of transformation that automation will enable. As Ian Harris advises concisely and simply: “Be ready.”

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