Are professions merely a set of outcomes? Where Susskind got it wrong.

By Professor John Flood
Professor of Law and Society
Griffith Law School

Richard Susskind has recently published a short paper arguing people don’t want professionals, they want solutions and answers. The paper then criticises professions for being more concerned with themselves than the people they serve. All in all, there is little wrong with this except the hoped for outcome–an outcomes-based set of professionals–won’t happen.

Susskind is first and foremost a lawyer and a technologist. He isn’t a sociologist which is why I forgive him his sins. In the paper he takes an extreme instrumentalist point of view that sees professionals as problem solvers. If this were the only issue, the problem perhaps could be solved, but of course it isn’t.

When we study work in society it is more than the sum of the economic returns it brings to those who toil. Work involves values, culture and social meaning. For example, there is a clear value choice, or even a moral one, between someone who elects to become a social worker or a teacher compared to someone who chooses private equity or hedge funds as their home. Neither is wrong but it’s evident there is a clear distinction in values here that can’t be explained only by outcomes.

Moreover, people join different groups because of the cultures of those groups. One of the successes of the British army compared to the US army, according to some sociologists, is the adoption and strength of the regimental system. It creates a common culture among different groups; they have a common totem if you like, which has thrived over many years. Doctors also have this in the distinctions between surgeons and internists. Each group has distinct historical roots and has undergone different struggles to be where it is today. To talk only of outcomes is to collapse and telescope hundreds of years of history and social development.

When these groups are together they form tight social units that share common language, habits and values. It doesn’t matter if we disagree with these values and habits, they are there. They are what give groups, professions, their strength. I don’t just choose to become a lawyer or a doctor. I will actually think about what sector do I want to join, where will I fit best, where will I make the best use of my talents. It doesn’t mean values, etc, don’t change, they will.

Back in the 1980s Thatcher attempted to enforce her ideologies on the professions. She was successful in starting a movement that essentially diminished self-regulation in favour of external and hybrid regulation. She may have been successful in enforcing improvements: for example, the conveyancing market was opened up; opticians’ monopolies were busted open. And outcomes were improved.

My counter-argument would be that it is good to improve outcomes. We only have to think of the introduction of checklists in medicine (how many scalpels in and out) to see mistakes decrease, or the abolition of any item of clothing or adornment below the elbow to see hygiene improve. But professions need more than this if we are to attract people into them and make satisfying careers there.

Let’s assume the Royal Society, the OECD, and Osborne and Frey are right that many jobs will be lost to automation. And Adair Turner asserted the new jobs will be less productive so reducing overall productivity in society. Then the outlook is bleak.

Every attempt to make work accountable, quantifiable, verifiable reduces our joy and our meaning in work. This outlook fits with the economist’s view that work is essentially a disutility compared to leisure (utility). The current moves to financialisation of life emphasise this approach. We are reduced to units of economic value–labour, land, capital. It’s a subservient view of labour, similar to De Sousa Santos ideas of subaltern globalisation.

The single most important aspect of the professional that Susskind has neglected is the role of the trusted advisor. In a way such people don’t deliver outcomes. They present views, interpretations, they make connections, they produce ideas from left field. They counsel us because they have a world view (Weltanschauung) that exceeds ours. Without this we would be impoverished.

I know there is plenty wrong with professions. I have spent many years discussing the legal profession in its forms. But I also know, as an academic, that new graduates coming through earnestly desire to improve the lives of others. We need to equip them to do that and also engage them in discussions about the best ways to achieve their ends, not as a calculus on a balance sheet, but in a way that continues to inspire the love of their chosen field, that makes learning desirable, and that ensures they will do the best for their clients or patients.

It saddens me that in the 90 years from when Fritz Lang’s Metropolis showed a dystopian view of society that we may be doing our utmost to reproduce it in the present. Measuring work by its outcomes only denies the value of the human input and creativity. If not careful, views like Susskind’s will take us there.