Sub-theme 08: [SWG] Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence: Reshaping Professional Service Firms, Professions, and Expert Work

Andreas Werr
Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden
Lucie Noury
Audencia Business School, France
Ruthanne Huising
emlyon business school, France

Call for Papers

As part of the EGOS Standing Working Group (SWG) 08 on “Management, Occupations and Professions in Social Context”, this sub-theme engages with the challenges and possibilities of digitalization and Artificial Intelligence (AI) for professional service firms, professions, and expert work. Professions are defined by their possession and mastery of a unique body of knowledge (Abbott, 1988). Digitalization alters the accessibility of the codified knowledge professions draw on to do their work and the data they generate while working. In relation to these digital forms, machine learning and artificial intelligence can develop competing modes of inference and diagnosis, threatening the core work of the professions.
Studies of the implications of technological change for professions and knowledge workers offer insights into these issues (e.g. Barley, 1986; Barrett et. al., 2012; Beane, 2019; Nelson & Irwin, 2014). Yet, it is crucial to understand whether new technologies challenge these findings, our assumptions, and established models of professional organization, control, and expertise. This sub-theme welcomes studies of the implications of digitalization and AI on professional service firms, professions, and expert work.
At the level of the professional service firm, digitalization is enabling new organizational forms (e.g. platform-based organizations) that may challenge the organizational professionalism (Evetts, 2011) that has been increasingly complementing traditional professionalism. Professional service firms adopting such organizing principles may, as they grow, develop economic and career models that differ considerably from traditional ones and which, for the most part, remain to be explored. Digitalization and AI also challenge existing organizational forms. As competencies related to AI and machine learning increasingly become an essential expertise, traditional mono-professional organizations are challenged by a need to incorporate a different kind of professional expertise. This may induce changes in, for example, recruitment, career systems and remuneration, challenging long established organizational models such as the P2 or MPB models (Morris et al., 2017).
The potential automation of professional service work – and new entrants exploiting this – may also remove the need for entry level jobs in PSFs which have been instrumental for the training of professionals, thus challenging core aspects of PSFs HR strategies. Furthermore, changes in the availability of knowledge and what is regarded as key competence, may redraw the competitive landscape in professional service industries. Providers of technical platforms may gain influence over organization and work practices thus raising questions about by whom and with what motives these are designed.
At the level of professions, current rapid technological developments are potential threats to professional authority and autonomy in a number of ways. The potential detachment of knowledge and inference from the professions, suggests that clients might become increasingly competent and new competitors may emerge. Alternatively, technological developments may operate in a complementary fashion, allowing professions to reshape their jurisdiction in ways that increase their jurisdiction and autonomy. Further, new professions are likely to emerge as a result of technological change. What challenges do these new technologies pose for professional authority and autonomy? How do professions maintain their jurisdiction and autonomy within this jurisdiction? What is the role and response of professional associations and accreditors? How do these new technologies shape how the broader system of professions is renegotiated?
At the level of work, digitalization encourages the decomposition of professional work into sub-tasks, some of which may be easily automated and revitalizes classical questions regarding the nature of knowledge workers’ competence (Alvesson, 2001; Blackler, 1995). Digitalization holds potential to provide new tools that may enhance and/or partly replace professionals’ expertise and the socio-materiality of new IT systems may challenge professional practices. Deeply ingrained professional identities defining good practices, responsibility and accountability may need to be renegotiated in the light of changing power dynamics among professionals, within professional service firms and in relation to clients. In addition, although the professional firm has traditionally been a strong site of socialization and identity construction for professionals, as platform-based firms develop, such processes may be reconfigured, and professional identities come to be redefined. Below we set out questions that could be interesting for this sub-theme, however, we also encourage submissions that approach the topic from different perspectives:
At the level of the professional service firm:

  • Who and what drives the introduction of technology into professional service work?

  • What new ways of organizing professional work are emerging in the wake of increasing digitalization and what practices and structures remain unaffected?

  • How can professional service firms adapt their structures and management practices in response to digitalization?

At the level of the profession:

  • How do different professions respond to threats and opportunities emerging from digitalization or AI?

  • How is digitalization or the introduction of AI altering the system of professions, and what are the dynamics involved?

At the level of the expert work:

  • How are the task jurisdictions and work practices of professions altered in the wake of digitalization? Which practices endure, which change, and why?

  • How do professional identities and expertise evolve in the wake of changing organizations, work practices and power dynamics between humans and machines?



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  • Alvesson, M. (2001): “Knowledge work: Ambiguity, image and identity.” Human Relations, 54 (7), 863–886.
  • Barrett, M., Oborn, E., Orlikowski, W.J., & Yates, J. (2012): “Reconfiguring boundary relations: Robotic innovations in pharmacy work.” Organization Science, 23 (5), 1448–1466.
  • Beane, M. (2019): “Shadow learning: Building robotic surgical skill when approved means fail.” Administrative Science Quarterly, 64 (1), 87–123.
  • Blackler, F. (1995): “Knowledge, Knowledge Work and Organizations: An Overivew and Interpretation.” Organization Studies, 16 (6), 1021–1046.
  • Evetts, J. (2011): “A new professionalism? Challenges and opportunities.” Current Sociology, 59 (4), 406–422.
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  • Morris, T., Smets, M., von Nordenflycht, A., & Brock, D.M. (2017): “25 years since ‘P2’: Taking stock and charting the future of professional firms.” Journal of Professions and Organization, 4(2), 91–111.
  • Nelson, A.J., & Irwin, J. (2014). “‘Defining what we do – all over again’: Occupational identity, technological change, and the librarian/internet-search relationship.” Academy of Management Journal, 57 (3), 892–928.
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  • Zuboff, S. (1988): In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books.
Andreas Werr is a Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, Sweden, and the Head of its Centre for HRM and knowledge work. His research interests include management consultancy, the management of professional services and the nature and development of management knowledge.
Lucie Noury is an Assistant Professor of Management at Audencia Business School, France. Her research focuses on the contemporary evolutions of professional work and of the organization of professional service firms.
Ruthanne Huising is Professor of Management and Organizations, and Director of the AIM Research Center for Work and Organization at emlyon business school, France. She is an ethnographer of work and organizations.