Learning in the age of AI

Written by: Richard Willsher Posted: 16/03/2020

AI trainingAs machines increasingly take on many of the tasks that were traditionally used to give trainees a grounding in professional firms, some are worried that they’re missing out on valuable experience of the basics. So do the benefits of AI and automation outweigh what they’re taking away?

Today’s new technologies are demanding that professional firms adopt different – and better – approaches to training their young talent.

The time-honoured method of introducing new talent was to recruit well-educated trainees, perhaps from the ‘milk round’ of university visits and careers exhibitions, and have them ‘do their time’ working on little more than mundane roles.

This would instil in them the basics of their chosen profession, upon which they would be able to build their future high-flying careers. That is, if they stayed the course. 

The classic example is the Oxbridge graduate with ambitions of being a barrister – who would be treated as a low-paid dogsbody and expected to do the photocopying for the senior members of their chambers. Many decided this was a waste of their time and sought their fortunes elsewhere.

This approach doesn’t work today for a number of reasons. As there are now fewer ‘careers for life’, there is little point to ‘timeserving’. In the so-called war for talent, and amid the need for professional firms to get the most they can from their highly paid new recruits, the sooner a trainee can start making a contribution to their employer’s prosperity, the better.

What’s more, there’s no longer a need to allocate staff to the more mundane tasks often carried out by trainees, as these can be taken on by machines and other automated technology.

The portmanteau term for such automation is artificial intelligence (AI). But this can embrace a variety of machine capabilities, from the application of relatively simple packets of software to highly sophisticated applications and algorithms.

Some of these can not only carry out more complex tasks but, like their young human counterparts, they learn on the job – becoming more and more capable over time. 

How are trainees to learn?

Of course, if machines can now perform the functions once performed by trainees, this raises the question of how trainees are to learn their trade and gather the skills they need. Has something been lost in the change?

Perhaps, but Richard Field, a Partner in the dispute resolution team at the Guernsey office of law firm Appleby, is positive about the effect of automation.

At Appleby, a software package assists with drafting documents – able to compare and contrast different documents, tasks that were typically part of a trainee’s daily work. However, Field adds that there is still some drafting that is manually carried out and, more broadly, experience still plays an important part in learning.

Of course, today’s trainees have also grown up with technology – and Field adds that many come to the firm “pre-wired”.

“One thing that we have been talking about with people generally, not just on the legal side but more widely across the island and in other professions and sectors, is that we are bringing on board some very tech-savvy, energised junior lawyers and trainees,” he says.

“They are interested in innovation, in changing the way things have been done, because that’s the way they do things day to day themselves. They can catch up on the professional education, in law, for example, but they come to us with a good grounding in technology which benefits them and the firm.”

At C5 Alliance Group, which is part of BDO in Jersey and provides technology advice and consultancy across Jersey and Guernsey, John Gamble is Director of Professional Services. He says C5 trainees start off on internal projects and gain experience while working with automation, including AI. 

“We tend to start them off with less pressured work, so they get a feel for us, working on projects, in teams, where the client is C5 itself. They can see how project processes work and, over time, we expose them to support tickets – which provides direct client contact but means assistance can be readily provided. 

“We look to develop individuals around five or maybe six key axes, of which technology is only one. We do expect people to be top of their game in technology, but you can’t expect a junior to be at that stage – and technical skills are only one part of what it means to be a consultant. You also need to understand project delivery processes. 

“We expect people to be able to communicate. That’s crucial, either through verbal, written or presentation style. We expect people to be able to work in teams, be able to contribute to the greater goal that the team is trying to achieve, as opposed to the individual. 

“Finally, we expect our people, as consultants, to understand the client’s business and how best to advise them. This is gained from experience of developing technology-based solutions for multiple clients across a wide range of sectors. That doesn’t come from day one; it takes years.” 

AI trainingEven in a technical profession, technology is only one part of the skill set. Nigel Duffy, Global AI Leader at EY, outlines the scale of its operations – but also points out the importance of inter-personal skills and teamwork.

“We are increasing the proportion of new hires with STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – backgrounds. Today, there are more than 45,000 EY people with technology backgrounds. AI scientists, mathematicians and cryptographers are among EY teams, as well as more than 20,000 data specialists. 

“In addition, we’ve introduced EY Badges – credentials for people with new skills such as AI, design thinking and data science. EY invested approximately $530m into training in 2019 and more than 14 million formal hours of learning were completed, on top of experiential development and structured mentoring.”
But he adds: “Increasingly, inter-disciplinary collaboration is the key to success. The ability to learn quickly, to communicate clearly, to collaborate effectively, and to seek and appreciate diverse perspectives – these are critical. Hard problems require effective teams – there are few hard problems that can be solved by an individual any more.”

Education, education, education

Technology and technology-related skills are now key components of trainees’ education. So are schools adequately providing future trainees with the right skills? C5’s John Gamble is upbeat.

“I think the education sector does a really great job,” he says. “There are changes afoot that are more subtle than people might recognise. To give you an example, here in Jersey they’ve rolled out Microsoft Office 365 across many schools – providing the latest versions of Excel, Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, and so on. Plus there’s the new collaboration software in Teams and there’s the opportunity to use things like SharePoint and OneDrive. 

“Those are exactly the same tools that are used in businesses, so by changing education style to work with and use Office 365 is really helping us out. Once we recruit trainees, it allows us to focus on the technology they wouldn’t have had exposure to at schools and college.”

People are optimistic about the benefits of AI and automation – or, as John Gamble puts it: “The point about automation is that it gives people’s time back.”

In fact, it frees up bright, able and expensive humans to focus on higher-value tasks where human involvement and interaction are crucial, especially when they’re directly involved with clients. 

Far from fearing that trainees will lose valuable knowledge by not doing the photocopying and data entry, instead AI has become a tool for trainees to gain experience and become more effective, valuable employees.

Understanding the road to artificial intelligence

“RPA can be seen as the first step toward machines that truly think. We call this ‘automated intelligence’: automating manual/cognitive and routine/non-routine tasks. Another relatively early stage, ‘assisted intelligence’, involves AI that helps people perform tasks faster and better. ‘Augmented intelligence’ helps people make better decisions. In time, we are likely to see ‘autonomous intelligence’: automating decision-making processes without human intervention.”

Courtesy of PwC, We, robot: Solving the RPA/human capital puzzle in financial services, 2017


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