Disruption #2: Digital Technology
As I argued, with respect to markets, disruptions are not necessarily destructive: they don’t necessarily destroy professions. But they exert pressures on professions and on professionals who are not always ready, willing, or able to resist those pressures.
In the “good old days,” clients either trusted professionals qua professionals, or they relied on the advice of their friends (who might or might not have good judgment with respect to the professionals and the professional expertise in question). Nowadays an enormous amount of information is readily available online about the competence of specific professionals, including a variety of rating systems. In general, it is more helpful to know what 100 or 1000 individuals think about a specific lawyer or doctor than simply to know what your three best friends have to say. But it is certainly possible to manipulate rating systems—for example, by mobilizing friends (or enemies) of the individual or site in question. It is also possible that large numbers of individuals could be seduced by irrelevant criteria, and still others could create procedures or apps that automatically tilt the scales of judgment.
When people invoke “the wisdom of crowds,” I often wink and respond, “And what of the stupidity of crowds?”. Similarly, when I am curious about the quality of a recently published book, I feel on much firmer ground reading, or speaking to, a few experts on the topic rather than valorizing the number of stars or “likes” the book received on a website. At the same time, if I have access both to experts and to the less discriminating but more numerous crowd, I am better off than if only one source of evaluation is available to me.
In general, cooperation between expert professionals, on the one hand, and experts in the digital media, on the other, can be salutary. Professionals need help in getting their messages out, and nowadays, only a naif would rely largely on the traditional media. Experts in the digital media are essential for transmitting messages and for tracking their impact; but unless these experts actually understand what is important for the professional who wants to fulfill her role completely and competently, they are likely to give feedback that is not helpful and perhaps misleading. As one long-involved in educational reform, I have considerable doubt that experts working for management consultancies can offer advice that is useful for educators; based on my own observations, what McKinsey has to say may be relevant for General Electric or General Motors but is rarely helpful for the public system in Big City, USA.
As a convenient example, let me use the launching of this blog. Without having financial resources to devote to it, I benefited from the advice of individuals with experience in the digital media. These included my assistant Danny Mucinskas, who divided the piece into sections and added illustrations that visibly(!) improved the attractiveness of the presentation. The number of responses received was extremely gratifying to me—because these responses came from individuals who are knowledgeable about the professions and thoughtful about the issues that I raised. But unless an expert on digital media could actually evaluate the feedback, he or she might erroneously conclude that forty or so responses was a tiny number without any conceivable impact. Better 400 or 40,000, whatever their range and their quality.
As a few commentators noted, we are at the earliest stages of understanding—indeed, of conceptualizing—how professionals in one or another domain can work expeditiously with experts in programming, social media, and big data. This terrain is ripe for experimentation. It is possible, as Charles Lang argues, that we may be able to develop algorithms that are more effective than groups of “live” experts; or as Richard Weissbourd suggests, that automated systems may be able to bring to bear diverse perspectives on complicated problems. But I worry about what we should do when there are hundreds of candidate algorithms, and I would not want to put any algorithm in charge of making that judgment call!
Let me take this opportunity to note a new and very important kind of expertise—the ability to ensure that digital communication tools are used in ways that are fair and accessible and that do not compromise privacy or promulgate privileged information. While those individuals who take care of servers and other features of the digital grid may not be officially designated as “professionals,” we depend on them to behave in a highly professional way!
Thanks to commentators Kendall Bronk, Henry Jenkins, Charles Lang, Seana Moran, Jake Seliger, Dennis Thompson, and Richard Weissbourd.
This is the fifth in a ten-part series in which I respond to the comments received regarding my essay “Is There a Future for the Professions? An Interim Verdict.” To follow along, click here for a general outline of the planned responses, and check back often for new posts!