Helping Students Frame Their Futures in the AI Age

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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
By Tom Davis
Illustration by iStock/Arne Weitkaemper
Business students may fear falling behind as AI clouds their career prospects. How can educators help them place that dynamic in context—and thrive?
  • Business schools are uniquely positioned to provide students with context, perspective, and insights about the role of AI in the future of work.
  • Educators can help students frame the effects of technology along the three dimensions of time, space, and place.
  • AI is the latest in a series of digital waves that have shaped the world. Business and business students have resiliently evolved and adapted with each new stage.

The familiar portmanteau word “frenemy” describes someone or something that is at the same time both a friend and an enemy. That description aptly reflects how business students may view artificial intelligence (AI). This Fourth Industrial Revolution technology can be an accelerator that helps students scale, yet also a threat that could undermine their potential value as future business professionals.

Of course, perceptions drive beliefs, and beliefs drive attitudes. Therefore, business school leaders can shape students’ attitudes by providing context, perspective, and insights about the role of AI in the future of work.

Beyond calming students’ anxiety about their career prospects vis-à-vis AI, business schools can frame the “AI revolution” as what it is—a constructive step on a long journey of digitally enabled productivity that extends back to the earliest mainframe computers. Practitioners and business academics can empower students to take the next step on this journey by shaping their relationship with AI along three dimensions: time, space, and place.

Time: The Temporal Context

Technological innovation and diffusion have exploded at an unprecedented pace over the past 30 years (perhaps not coincidentally tracking with the rise in usage of the word frenemy). Most of today’s business students are digital natives who have no firsthand memory of a time before smartphones were ubiquitous, seemingly infinite information was available at their fingertips, and myriad social media services allowed them to stay continuously connected to their friends and colleagues.

For that reason, they may lack context for processing how the recent rise of AI compares to other digital innovations that did not prove to be extinction-level threats, to borrow from some futurists’ gloomiest predictions. In turn, business schools may find that students benefit from a brief history lesson that covers the three waves of the world wide web technology (to date) and how business has successfully leveraged each one.

The World Wide Web. The early days of the web as we know it were characterized by the diffusion of the internet, the breakthrough innovation of the hyperlink, and the largely static format of content on websites made up of hard-coded HTML webpages and file downloads.

Web 2.0. The hallmark of the second wave of the web was its evolution into the “read-write” web, meaning that content was no longer simply fixed and one-way. In the early days of Web 2.0, this two-way interactivity took the form of blogging and collaborative editing (think Google Docs). It eventually exploded into what we now know as the wide range of social media services.

Most of today’s business students are digital natives who may lack context for processing how the rise of AI compares to other digital innovations that did not prove to be extinction-level threats.

Web3. Today, the web has evolved even further, enabling constructs such as blockchain, distributed ledgers, and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). These advances form the backbone of everything from crypto assets to supply chain traceability and transparency.

Each of these waves has presented its own challenges and drawbacks. However, business has a strong record of transforming digital change into opportunity. To date, business has embraced each of these waves and seized on its attendant opportunities to create everything from e-commerce to targeted advertising to crytocurrency.

When the next wave of digital innovation hits, the agents of change will be tomorrow’s leaders—in other words, today’s business students.

Space: The Business Context

“Co-opetition,” another portmanteau word, is “frenemy” writ large and extended to business strategy. Professors Adam Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff coined the term in the mid-1990s to describe the concept of organizations cooperating with competitors to achieve common goals or advance entire industries.

Co-opetition occurs when rivals realize that, if they don’t cooperate with each other, they both will achieve suboptimal outcomes. Further, if they themselves fail to embrace co-opetition, other parties could step in and take their places.

The same principle applies when it comes to students and technology. Students might fear that AI could render them less employable or make their skills redundant. But the same drivers that incent co-opetition between frenemy organizations in the business world will inspire new relationships between students and AI. A current meme states it clearly: “AI won’t take your job; rather, someone proficient with AI will take your job.”

Therefore, it is important for students to consider what the consequences will be if they don’t learn to partner with AI. When they take that perspective, they will see AI as an opportunity for their own professional development rather than a source of anxiety.

Place: The Social Context

Social comparison theory tells us that how we perceive ourselves frequently is colored by how we compare ourselves—often unfavorably—to others. Business students absolutely need to stay curious, embrace new trends, and cultivate a penchant for lifelong learning.

But an element of imposter syndrome can creep in as they imagine either that others are far more advanced and capable than they are or that they themselves are deficient or unqualified for the roles they aspire to hold.

Today’s students are adaptable, globally minded, and inclusive. These attributes prepare them to succeed alongside AI, not work at cross purposes against it.

If they contrast themselves with perceived AI experts, students are more likely to feel threatened both by AI and by the people who are leveraging it effectively. To counter that tendency, business schools should ground students in the knowledge that all other parties—from individual knowledge workers to industry leaders to governments—are still learning within the AI space.

In addition, professors and career counselors can help students understand that imposter syndrome is a cognitive distortion, defined in part by the fact that most affected people are in fact accomplished, apt, and qualified. Because today’s students are pursuing education within flexible, global, and multicultural learning environments, they have learned to be adaptable, globally minded, and inclusive. These attributes prepare them to succeed alongside AI, not work at cross purposes against it.

New Beginnings

Artificial intelligence, the latest high-profile digital disruption, will itself lay the groundwork for some subsequent technological wave and threat. Business schools are uniquely positioned to help students navigate these choppy waters. By providing clear framing that offers context, perspectives, and insights, educators can help students situate the rise and potential of AI in time, space, and place.

In doing so, business school leaders might find inspiration in Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

To extrapolate, AI is not the end of technological disruption—it is not even the beginning of the end. But it has, perhaps, brought us to the end of the beginning. It has ushered in a new era in which we are rethinking the boundaries between friends and enemies, cooperators and competitors, and human and digital forms of intelligence. In this era, well-prepared business graduates undoubtedly will evolve, adapt, and thrive.

Tom Davis
Clinical Assistant Professor, Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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