Research Findings

How do professional knowledge workers cope with an uncertain future in the artificial intelligence age?


December 22, 2022

Artificial intelligence (AI) and other recent technologies that substitute human expertise are growing and increasingly diffused. In such an era, how can professional knowledge workers cope with their uncertain future?

In a recent study, I found a new mode of viewing the future as one of their coping strategies against advancing digitalization. Instead of searching for a “right” future projection, some professionals are increasingly accepting the future of professions as ever-changing and actively incorporating recent technologies to transform their work.

AI as a concern

The influence of AI on various professions has long been debated. As early as in the 1980s, during the previous AI boom, sociologists predicted that as technology advanced, AI and algorithmic solutions could someday replace a wide range of human professionals’ tasks. As a result, the status of established professions might be significantly disrupted. Today, the prophecy is coming true.

AI and other technologies are automating a wide range of simple and repetitive tasks. As algorithmic solutions become capable of handling more sophisticated tasks, traditional human expertise is increasingly marginalized. Even established professions, such as accountants, are no exception. Studies have sensationally reported that a broad range of professional tasks could be substituted by AI, though the degree of substitution varies by study.

Thus, shared concerns grew among professional knowledge workers: How professions can survive, and what is the future of professions, if any?

Uncertain future

My research examined how professionals construct their views on AI and its influence on their future. I conducted a qualitative study, using interviews and archival data, on auditors at one of the Big Four audit firms in Japan in 2017–9, when its taskforce considered applying AI to its core audit services.

The professional auditors that I interviewed reflected on their future to discern the uniqueness of human roles, as they explore potential AI applications to their work. In the process, the auditors moved through a three-phase cycle: 1) monitoring environmental changes, 2) experimenting with new practices using the new technology, and 3) developing the blueprints of the future.

In their process of prospective sensemaking, the auditors perceived significant uncertainty surrounding their future.

On the one hand, growing technological capacity would determine what would be technically possible, which would continue evolving. On the other hand, regulations, societal expectations, and industry trends would construct what would be socially acceptable. AI capacity in practice would depend on the intersection of the two. However, both were continuing to shift and there would be no definitive ending to the changes.

Future as ever-changing

Through the cycle, the auditors gradually constructed a sense that the future of their firm and profession would be ever-changing due to the complexity. The more they engaged in blueprinting the future, the more they became aware that the future could never be simply predicted as before and never-ending sensemaking would be the new normal.

This resonates with a growing alternative view of the future in the digital age. What counts is envisioning what is desirable and taking action to move reality forward, rather than developing a “right” forecast. Future visions cannot and do not have to be perfect. Imagination is sometimes more necessary than rational analysis. Flexible adjustment to follow continuing changes is important. Even if a future vision failed to predict the future correctly, what matters is the actions enabled by the vision and the changes triggered by the actions.

By accepting the future of professions as ever-changing, the auditors embraced uncertainty as a normal state. With this worldview, their firm incorporated new organizational structures for innovation that supported flexible experiments using innovative technologies, deliberately without a pre-fixed future plan.

Constructing the future

This study has two implications. First, one of the fundamental changes that digitalization poses for professions is a shift in how professionals perceive, plan for, and act on the future. A distinct mode of viewing the future that accepts the future as ever-changing is a means of coping with high uncertainty.

Second, strategic coping with uncertainty can be the central agenda for today’s professionals. Today’s professionals, like businesses, need to maneuver in an uncertain environment to survive. As a baseline, today’s professionals need to embrace continuous updates of their future visions as the new normal, accepting the future as ever-changing.

Further, one’s imagined future can influence the expectations of other stakeholders, which affects their decisions and future outcomes as a result. Thus, involving other actors in the cycle of sensemaking can be critical in shaping the future.

For example, it would be important for professionals to involve influential stakeholders, such as regulatory agencies and resourceful information technology powerhouses, by sharing their views of the future in lobbying and alliances, to materialize a favored future. In addition, a fine-grained discursive strategy is critically important in such “sensegiving.”

In other words, strategic concerns in communicating and materializing future visions, such as whom to involve or how to communicate, can be an important agenda for professionals in digitalization.

Read more

Masashi Goto. “Accepting the future as ever-changing: professionals’ sensemaking about artificial intelligence.” in Journal of Professions and Organization 2022.

Image: Artificial Neural Network with Chip via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

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