Technology startups — those unique drivers of innovation — often come to mind when we think of how business intersects with science. “Disruption,” a common term in the tech startup space, is not just something that cutting-edge businesses strive to accomplish in the marketplace. Instead, the disruption of how things are typically done may be the new normal that businesses and even researchers, professionals, and students in STEM fields should anticipate when thinking about the future.
Common examples of disruption include artificial intelligence (AI) and advances in robotics creating new manufacturing processes. Some researchers and institutions are calling this ongoing wave of rapid technological change the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). While the term means different things depending on whom you ask, one important aspect is how technology and the markets for that technology are increasingly less isolated. Changes in the market demand for COVID-19 vaccines, for example, encouraged innovation in vaccine technology. Of course, new technology creates new demand for the products supported by that technology (i.e., new markets). The latest smart device is an example of technology creating, or interacting with, a market.
In addition to this relatively new interconnectivity between technology and the business side of things, both are changing — quickly. With those changes come new ways for technology to impact business and markets, and vice versa. The scholars who talk about 4IR view it as having opportunities and uncertainties for organizations and people across STEM fields.
Biotechnology is a notable example of a rapidly changing specialty. In one recent study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers used AI and machine learning to design a sensor that can pick up subtle changes in serotonin levels in the brains of mice — changes that would be undetectable with previous methods. Because serotonin plays a role in sleep cycles, mood, digestion, and emotion, a better understanding of how it works in human brains could have a huge impact on sleep research and mental health care.
As technological innovations advance our understanding of everything from how the brain works to how to analyze large data sets, “disruptive” changes will be constant. For people in STEM, a time of disruptive change can bring opportunities, including for leadership. Dr. Lena Booth, senior associate dean of International Academic Partnerships and an associate professor of finance at Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, points out that digital transformation requires people who can both understand the technology and lead organizations as they work through the transformation.
NEW TECHNOLOGY CREATES NEW DEMAND FOR THE PRODUCTS SUPPORTED BY THAT TECHNOLOGY.
Dr. Booth specifically speaks to the relevance of artificial intelligence. As AI and data analysis grow in importance, she believes the result will be a need for candidates with both technical and business backgrounds. “Employees need to understand how AI works,” she says, “and how products or business solutions could be developed based on AI.”
Similarly, AI and data analysis applications are relevant in higher education, creating opportunities to transform courses of study. Thunderbird, where Dr. Booth teaches, has revised its curriculum to prepare students for the future, offering courses such as AI in the Global Economy and Strategic Management of Technology and Innovation.
STEM jobs (and the technologies involved) are growing and changing quickly, so expect the skills that are fundamental to success in a career to change and broaden. In a world where tech disciplines are increasingly interconnected with the business side, many STEM professionals may one day hold jobs in management or otherwise have roles not specifically related to their original areas of expertise.
To prepare for a leadership role, Dr. Booth advises developing skills “to bridge between technology/digital solutions and the business side of things.” Just as important, she says, are the interpersonal skills needed to manage technical and business teams. “Acquire both hard and soft skills,” she says, pointing out that hard skills in technology and digital solutions are important for developing products and solving business problems. “However, it is the soft skills — leadership, interpersonal, communication, and negotiation skills, coupled with a global mindset — that will help professionals climb their career ladders in global organizations.”
In times of change a solid foundation of skills goes a long way. As business and science become more interdependent — and more unpredictable — the values, teachings, resilience, and teamwork skills you have learned will be essential, no matter how your future unfolds.