Sunday, December 04, 2016

Can your job be replaced ?

I've just started on my unpaid internship with a start-up that deals with smart contracts. The power of an unpaid internship is that it is very easy to fall into the trap of doing the bare minimum and I was very careful not to let it happen to me. My start-up has a a number of objectives which I can work towards which I intend to meet, otherwise I am spending my December trying to pick up two key skills :

a) The first is to pick up the MEAN stack of writing software using MongoDB, ExpressJS, NodeJS and AngularJS. Fortunately, I paid $26 four a course from Udemy which gives me a small taste of how to scaffold and refine a simple website with this technology.
b) The second skill set is to spend a months trying to think about the legal industry and the forces which are intent on disrupting legal work. The book I am reading is Tomorrow's Lawyers : An Introduction to Your Future by Richard Susskind.

Interestingly, the book I am reading on the legal industry has enough generic information which is useful to folks from the IT or finance industry and I think it would be useful to develop a generic framework that would give a readers an idea of how vulnerable you are to being replaced.

The book has an interesting framework to measure the degree of commoditization of someone's labour. Instead of just applying labels like bespoke and commoditized, the author suggests five ways to measure the degree of commoditization of the work you provide for your customer.

Bespoke work is what every knowledge worker dreams to work on. A litigator for a top firm does bespoke work and so does a top neurosurgeon. This is the safest haven for professional workers, but requires not just a lot of technical skill, it requires a combination of soft skills and domain knowledge to remain relevant. Every knowledge worker should strive to provide bespoke work to a customer.

One step below bespoke work is standardized work. No work is truly unique and there generally have to be the kind of work which looks similar to problem faced before. Sometimes, a lawyer goes through a checklist when drafting an employment agreement rather than to create one from ground up. A complex brain operation may have a complicated checklist which the surgeon must undergo. He is not creating new medical science. Similarly, what I have learned in software engineering is that most websites we create come from a common framework which we scaffold and modify later to the client's requirements. Standardized work is still a money spinner and a bulk of work falls into this category instead.

One step below standardised work is systematized work. Where the checklist can be automate and tracked using computers, the work become s systematised. IT Operations moved into this phase when ITSM was created and standard ticketing was done to streamline helpdesk operations. This is an emerging phenomenon in legal work when I was doing my pro-bono work with Criminal legal aid. Some sort of ticketing work flow exists to allow means testing to take place and have the lawyers perform data entry on the case in a CRM system. Automated document assemble of contracts comes into this category.

The next step is packaged work. At this stage, there is a sufficient degree of systematization which allows the work to be packaged and done online. One example of tax preparation. This work can reasonably be done by outsourced workers remotely.  Some of the work may not even require a a professional to perform it.

At the final stage is commoditization, where the work has become so commonplace that it may become open-sourced. Imagine a contract of employment which is so cookie cutter that it is available online for free and HR professionals can just download and modify it within 5 minutes before deploying into their organization.

This is a very useful model for all professionals to measure the risk they face from commoditization of the work they do. The trick is to not to look at the job they face but break the work down granularly to determine which parts can be done at a cheaper rate by someone else.

Say for example, the person in question is some sort of financial advisor, there is a trend of customers turning to robo-advisors to set up their portfolios. The work of calculating the stock ratios to determine the best stocks to buy have already reached the commoditization stage. The question is whether these robo-advisors can adequately capture the risk tolerance of a customer in such a way that the work of face to face engagement can be sufficiently systematized to kill off most financial advisory roles in the industry.

If you believe that your work is reaching the systematization stage, then it might be useful to see if it is possible to start advising something else instead. Currently advising on wills, trusts and settting up of a family office is not facing disruption yet.


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