In recent years, the field of product management has witnessed a dramatic surge in importance across numerous business sectors. Many factors, including the increase in digital products and services, a rise in the culture of customer centricity, and the fact that product managers generally get paid attractive salaries, are responsible for this burgeoning demand. This has even been called “The Golden Age” of product management; there are certainly good arguments to support such a claim. It’s also true, however, that the field has been undergoing a sea change, with the latest and most profound disruption being the dizzyingly rapid growth of AI. While the uncertainty of AI’s long-term future impacts might be a source of concern for both current and aspiring product managers, both should be glad to know that in the short- and medium-term, AI represents more positive potentials than dystopian ones. Most important traits for product managers to succeed in this brave new world are still, and will continue to be, very human qualities.
How the Present Looks (and How the Future Will Look)
We don’t need to use the future tense when discussing AI and product management, since artificial intelligence tools are already used in multiple ways across various industries. Foremost among these is of course the IT industry, which currently deploys AI for accuracy testing, penetration testing, code refactoring, bug detection and debugging, and more. Many other industries such as marketing, healthcare, cybersecurity, and finance already make significant use of AI as well, and we are seeing usage spread quickly within additional industries such as biotech and pharma.
Despite the recent hoopla over ChatGPT and Midjourney, generative AI models currently don’t play as much of a role as does analytical AI. Where generative AI might play a role for some organizations is in the early and mid-stages of the production process: identifying new product ideas, evaluating product candidates, and testing and proofing. Granted, generative AI’s will likely play bigger roles in coming years, particularly in areas such as marketing and promotion where, for example, it could potentially take on some basic copywriting tasks.
The role of analytic AI, which is already quite significant, will also grow and spread across a broader range of industries—deriving insights into customer behavior, purchasing decisions, user preferences, and the like. As this is largely the domain of data scientists, what we’re going to see over the next three to five years is product managers needing to work even closer with data scientists as well as engineers, designers, marketing teams, and others along the product management chain.
The Skills That Will Be Needed
This brings us to the next important point. Notwithstanding legitimate concerns over AI’s implications on labor markets, when it comes to the product management field, I don’t foresee any doom-and-gloom scenarios, at least not in the short-term future (what will happen 10 or 15 years down the road, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess). The product management field will continue needing a large influx of talented human individuals to fill its ranks.
What the product management industry will need, however, are individuals equipped with the skills to thrive in an AI-driven future. While some required new capabilities will be technical, and product managers will certainly need a basic knowledge and proficiency of AI tools, human-centered skills such as leadership, teamwork, and communication will become even more important.
A common misperception in the general public is that a product manager single-handedly oversees and executes every aspect of a product’s development from start to finish. In reality, the role is more analogous to a movie producer who spearheads a film project but works with many different teams and individuals throughout the filmmaking process. For this reason, soft skills have always been important for product managers, but with AI’s added layers of complexity, they will need to hone their soft skills all the more. There are so many potential scenarios to illustrate why this will be needed, but let’s use a very simple one. For example, sometimes the AI might provide outputs that seem counterintuitive to stakeholders but spot-on to the product manager who must then effectively communicate this decision and rationale. Conversely, the product manager’s instinct may lead to rejecting the AI’s suggestion, which strikes others as being correct, and the reasoning behind this would need to be communicated as well.
Strong analytical and critical thinking skills will also be indispensable. Where AI will save time and resources is its ability to work with vast data sets, reducing what would normally take humans weeks or months into mere minutes. But it can only offer ideas, suggestions, and predictions. It can’t offer certainties and sometimes it can produce inaccurate or biased outputs. Since for the time being humans will still be the ones making the decisions, product managers will need the ability to triangulate AI’s outputs and, to put it somewhat crudely, run them through their own internal BS detectors.
The Role of Higher Education
With the expected speed and scale of the changes on the horizon, the industry will need help finding and keeping talented staff. Here, higher education can serve as a valuable pipeline of future-ready product managers. The present challenge is that while soft skills will be increasingly crucial, not all product management programs devote the level of attention to them that they arguably should. For degree programs to remain relevant, schools need to make sure they are equipping students with the skills needed to master their evolving roles. This is part of the reason why the program I have helped to design is housed within our Sloane School of Business & Communication, to impart those vital leadership, teamwork, analytical, and communication skills discussed earlier.
It might strike some as counterintuitive that human-centered skills would continue being so essential amid AI’s proliferation, but I hope this article has made a convincing case for why this will be so. The time when product managers can get by with only their technical skills is nearing an end. The product managers of tomorrow will need a balance of technical skills with the aforementioned soft skills, and hIgher education institutions will need to evolve to meet their changing needs and prepare them for the future that awaits.
Dr. William Koehler, Dean of the Regis College Sloane School of Business & Communication. Dr. Koehler oversees the new Masters of Product Management program at Regis College.
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