7 Ways to Prepare for the Future of Knowledge Work

By John Dillard


In this feed I’ve been writing about the importance of Microslices: the accelerating compression, automation, and specialization of knowledge work in general and professional services in particular. The question remains: what are the implications for executives right now? If you’re leading the owner of a company, or an executive who hires and/or pays for knowledge workers, there are some things that you can and should start doing differently.  First and foremost, it’s important to understand that executives who make buying, hiring and firing decisions ultimately have the greatest ability to drive change. Consultants, accountants, doctors, and lawyers have all been aware of the trends and opportunities discussed up to this point, but they have had little incentive to act on them thus far.

Clients of professional services firms shouldn’t pay for outdated practices, technological and data science illiteracy, or rigid delivery models, but if that’s what an executive is willing to buy, they’re gonna keep sellin’.

So what should you do, if you’re that visionary leader that makes the tough calls?

Let’s stipulate that you already know that the structure of the knowledge work market is being completely upended by technology, millennial behavior, and data science. You also understand the staggering magnitude of that change and why a lot of companies are going to be born -- and die -- as a result.

I’ll leave hiring to another post, and focus here on your services vendors. I’m talking about those who give you advice -- lawyers, accountants, consultants, and other experts. For all of them, take the time to make sure you understand whether they exhibit the following seven traits:

  1. Statistical and Technical Literacy: Do they understand the impact of data science and technology not just on you, but on themselves?

  2. Shared Risk: Are they willing to share the wins and losses of their advice-giving with you via contractual incentives?

  3. Results Orientation: Excluding only truly exceptional circumstances, you should not work with a knowledge work vendor unless the price is based on results delivered.

  4. Negotiation of Interests, Not Positions: Your professional advisors and you should focus on what needs to be accomplished, not an arbitrary set of project rules.

  5. Planned Advisor Obsolescence: All advisors should eventually be phased out by knowledge transfer or technology, period. It’s ok to have them move to a new problem, but if your vendor is just working “implementation,” you’re doing it wrong.

  6. Insistence on Measurement:  You have to measure the results of your knowledge vendors. That’s right, even for your lawyers. If they can’t even tell you how they can be measured, you should fire them.

  7. Mass Customization:  You hire top notch advisors to work long-term, complex problems; however, you can still break that up into very small pieces and build a team of advisors that are specialists. Make sure that they can play nicely together -- and that they can play nicely with automation and AI.

Regardless of sector, there is always resistance to change. Traditional firms may argue that there is no reason to change what has always worked well in the past, or that computers can’t accomplish the same work as a human. The truth is, eventually, AI capabilities will put these traditional firms out of business, and if you’re not planning ahead, it may put you out of business too.

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