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From Human to Robotized Expertise?

Digitalization is currently reshaping industries and organizations and work as we know it. So far, this development has been most salient in industries like retail, entertainment, and finance. Today, however, also knowledge-intensive professional service firms offering expert advice are being affected by digitalization and its potential threat of disruption. As more and more of expert tasks that were previously reserved for human experts can be automated or performed by robots or artificial intelligence, these firms need to rethink both their knowledge-base and the role for their human experts. The project explores how incumbent professional service firms as well as tech-based professional service firms strategize to adopt digitalization and avoid disruption, by examining incumbents within auditing, consulting, and law, and tech-firms within fin-tech, reg-tech, etc.

Background and research questions:

Until now, professional service firms have traditionally been depicted as highly reliant on their employees’ expertise and their knowledge-base. They have also been described as relatively slow to innovate and change. Today, however, the situation is different. Professional service firms need to rethink not only their strategies, but also how they organize their work, what kind of expertise and employees they need, and how to adopt new digital technologies in their service work. The project seeks to meet the need for more empirical research on these matters by asking the following questions:

  • How do incumbent and tech-based, professional service firms strategize to meet the needs for increased digitalization?
  • How do incumbent and tech-based professional service firms engage in digital innovation?
  • How does the role of the human expert change as more tasks can be performed by digital technologies?
  • How does digitalization affect the knowledge-base in professional service firms, as well as what skills and competences are deemed valuable in them?
  • And what consequences do the answers to the above questions have for how professional service firms are organized and managed?

Research approach:

These questions have been studied through interviews in incumbent and tech-based professional service firms, as well as through literature and media studies.

A first study was performed across several professional service industries, covering auditing, law firm, management consultancies, PR-Communication consultancies, and engineering consultancies. It revealed industry-specific patterns in how incumbent professional service firms engage in digital innovation.

This study has been followed-up with interview studies of incumbent law firms, as well as incumbent auditing firms – both representing “classic professional service firms”.

It has further been complemented with interview and media studies of tech-based professional service firms in areas like reg-tech, legal-tech, and fin-tech.

Key findings:

  • The findings from the project have been presented at academic conferences like Academy of Management, EGOS, the Professional Service Firm Conference, etc. (see Pemer, Skjølsvik, & Werr, 2018a, 2018b).
  • The results have further been presented at practitioner-oriented conferences, network meetings, and in keynote speeches.
  • Further, results have been presented in two live webinars organized by the Stockholm School of Economics Executive Education.

Further information:

The project has been funded by Forte.

Referenced publications:

Pemer, F. (forthcoming). Enacting Professional Service Work in Times of Digitalization and Potential Disruption. Journal of Service Research (OnlineFirst).

Skjølsvik, T. & Pemer, F. (2019). Digitally enabled professional service organizations: Institutional entrepreneurship in legal tech. Academy of Management Proceedings, 2019 (1).

Skjølsvik, T., & Breunig, K. J., & Pemer, F. (2018). Digitalization of Professional Services: The Case of Value Creation in Virtual Law Firms. In: Andersson, P., Movin, S., Mähring, M., Teigland, R. & Wennberg, K. (Eds.) Managing Digital Transformation (pp. 155-174), Stockholm: SIR.

Pemer, F., Skjølsvik, T. & Werr, A. (2018a). Professional service firms and the digital revolution – An exploratory study of challenges and responses. Paper presented at the Centre for Professional Service Firms’ Annual Conference. Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, Oxford.

Pemer, F., Skjølsvik, T. & Werr, A. (2018b). From Professional to Artificial Knowledge – Digitalization and the Professional Service Firm. Paper presented at the AOM Specialized Conference on Big Data and Managing in a Digital Economy, Surrey, UK.