Will I be replaced by a robo-consultant? Not yet

The professional services industries, such as consulting, accounting and legal, revolve around one thing – their people. Until recently it has remained relatively untouched, but technology, a shift in workforce demographics, increased competition and changing client demands are driving both transformation and disruption.

Sophisticated tools, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), have now given systems the ability to replace people as the workhorses for consuming, digesting and analyzing large amounts of data. Several law firm customers now use software to scan and identify contractual clauses that may be problematic. Lawbots, for example, are already appearing on the legal horizon, capable of client conversation and lightning fast advice. In a recent Lawgeex experiment, for example, 20 U.S. trained lawyers with decades of contract review experience were pitted against the Lawgeex AI solution. AI won on an accuracy level of 94% versus the human lawyers’ 84%. It is not out of the realms of possibility that one day we will see ML software achieve “partner” status in law firms, commanding its own associated fees.

The importance of the human touch

The human element, where people’s opinions and decisions are taken on board by groups of people, is still key in consulting services, however. It is well documented that consultants who possess good so-called “quality signals,” such as dress, experience and communication skills, will be seen as being more knowledgeable than their peers, even though they possess exactly the same knowledge.

Consultants pitching for business will also have a more successful outcome if they make sure they broadcast their “quality signals” in their presentations. They also need to be aware of the political landscape of their client's organization so they can align requirements with business needs and ensure a successful project.

Reading these subtle clues, which show exactly where authority sits in a group of people, is something us humans, as complex social animals, have been doing for thousands of years.

AI driven advice still in the wings

The global management consulting market is growing, according to analyst firm Adroit Research, and is expected to hit $343 billion by 2025, up from $284 billion this year. The primary driving force behind this growth is increasing need for compliance to regulations, operational efficiency and technological advances.

Most of this advice will be human based and high value. The big question is, can machine-learning applications manage the human aspects of consultancy? The short answer, at least in the medium term, is no.

Consultants provide both insight and guidance. Of course, they need to sell the value of the engagement and manage it to its conclusion. It can be argued that these services are based around data analysis, with consultants gleaning data from disparate departments in an organization and interpreting it. Yes, AI can be trained to process and understand this data. But, in my experience, anyone who has worked with data scientists will know that the bulk of the work is preparing and understanding the data, articulating meaningful questions and refining the results – all human activities.

Moving forward

With today’s business being increasingly driven by big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, which are already analyzing gargantuan amounts of structured and unstructured data to produce insights, consulting is undoubtedly vulnerable to technology disruption.

Machine learning, for example, can create computer models that provide insight into complex phenomena, detecting patterns in huge amounts of data. This would be pretty much impossible for a consulting team.

The truth is, however, that we all use technology in our work – and some of us already use AI and are aware of the pace at which machine learning is advancing. There are some challenges for AI, however, that make so-called “robo-consultants” a concept for the future.

Tom Gavin
Tom Gavin

Tom Gavin has been Head of Business Solutions UK and Ireland at Orange Business Services since 2017. Previously he held roles in Sales and Sales Management. Tom lives in London and has three daughters. He spends his spare time as a post graduate student at the Computing Department at the University West London and walking his dogs.