[This post is in response to ASQ’s February topic for the Influential Voices group, which asks: Where do you plan to take your career in 2016? What’s your view of careers in quality today—what challenges is this field facing? How can someone starting out in quality succeed?]
We are about to experience a paradigm shift in production, operations, and service: a shift that will have direct consequences on the principles and practice of design, development, and quality management. This “fourth industrial revolution” of cyber-physical systems will require more people in the workforce to understand quality principles associated with co-creation of value, and to develop novel business models. New technical skills will become critical for a greater segment of workers, including embedded software, artificial intelligence, data science, analytics, Big Data (and data quality), and even systems integration.
Over the past 20 years, we moved many aspects of our work and our lives online. And in the next 20 years, the boundaries between the physical world and the online world will blur — to a point where the distinction may become unnecessary.
Here is a vignette to illustrate the kinds of changes we can anticipate. Imagine the next generation FitBit, the personalized exercise assistant that keeps track of the number of steps you walk each day. As early as 2020, this device will not only automatically track your exercise patterns, but will also automatically integrate that information with your personal health records. Because diet strategies have recently been shown to be predominantly unfounded, and now researchers like Kevin Hall, Eran Elinav, and Eran Siegal know that the only truly effective diets are the ones that are customized to your body’s nutritional preferences , your FitBit and your health records will be able to talk to your food manager application to design the perfect diet for you (given your targets and objectives). Furthermore, to make it easy for you, your applications will also autonomously communicate with your refrigerator and pantry (to monitor how much food you have available), your local grocery store, and your calendar app so that food deliveries will show up when and only when you need to be restocked. You’re amazed that you’re spending less on food, less of it is going to waste, and you never have to wonder what you’re going to make for dinner. Your local grocery store is also greatly rewarded, not only for your loyalty, but because it can anticipate the demand from you and everyone else in your community – and create specials, promotions, and service strategies that are targeted to your needs (rather than just what the store guesses you need).
Although parts of this example may seem futuristic, the technologies are already in place. What is missing is our ability to link the technologies together using development processes that are effective and efficient – and in particular, coordinating and engaging the people who will help make it happen. This is a job for quality managers and others who study production and operations management
As the Internet of Things (IoT) and pervasive information become commonplace, the fundamental nature and character of how quality management principles are applied in practice will be forced to change. As Eric Schmidt, former Chairman of Google, explains: “the new age of artificial intelligence is beginning, and it’s a big deal.”  Here are some ways that this shift will impact researchers and practitioners interested in quality:
- Strategic deployment of IoT technologies will help us simultaneously improve our use of enterprise assets, reduce waste, promote sustainability, and coordinate people and machines to more effectively meet strategic goals and operational targets.
- Smart materials, embedded in our production and service ecosystems, will change our views of objects from inert and passive to embedded and engaged. For example, MIT has developed a “smart band-aid” that communicates with a wound, provides visual indicators of the healing process, and delivers medication as needed.  Software developers will need to know how to make this communication seamless and reliable in a variety of operations contexts.
- Our technologies will be able to proactively anticipate the Voice of the Customer, enabling us to meet not only their stated and implied needs, but also their emergent needs and hard-to-express desires. Similarly, will the nature of customer satisfaction change as IoT becomes more pervasive?
- Cloud and IoT-driven Analytics will make more information available for powerful decision-making (e.g. real-time weather analytics), but comes with its own set of challenges: how to find the data, how to assess data quality, and how to select and store data with likely future value to decision makers. This will be particularly challenging since analytics has not been a historical focus among quality managers. 
- Smart, demand-driven supply chains (and supply networks) will leverage Big Data, and engage in automated planning, automatic adjustment to changing conditions or supply chain disruptions like war or extreme weather events, and self-regulation.
- Smart manufacturing systems will implement real time communication between people, machines, materials, factories and warehouses, supply chain partners, and logistics partners using cloud computing. Production systems will adapt to demand as well as environmental factors, like the availability of resources and components. Sustainability will be a required core capability of all organizations that produce goods.
- Cognitive manufacturing will implement manufacturing and service systems capable of perception, judgment, and improving quality autonomously – without the delays associated with human decision-making or the detection of issues.
- Cybersecurity will be recognized as a critical component of all of the above. For most (if not all) of these next generation products and production systems, quality will not be possible without addressing information security.
- The nature of quality assurance will also change, since products will continue to learn (and not necessarily meet their own quality requirements) after purchase or acquisition, until the consumer has used them for a while. In a December 2015 article I wrote for Software Quality Professional, I ask “How long is the learning process for this technology, and have [product engineers] designed test cases to accommodate that process after the product has been released? The testing process cannot find closure until the end of the ‘burn-in’ period when systems have fully learned about their surroundings.” 
- We will need new theories for software quality practice in an era where embedded artificial intelligence and technological panpsychism (autonomous objects with awareness, perception, and judgment) are the norm.
How do we design quality into a broad, adaptive, dynamically evolving ecosystem of people, materials, objects, and processes? This is the extraordinarily complex and multifaceted question that we, as a community of academics and practitioners, must together address.
Just starting out in quality? My advice is to get a technical degree (science, math, or engineering) which will provide you with a solid foundation for understanding the new modes of production that are on the horizon. Industrial engineering, operations research, industrial design, and mechanical engineering are great fits for someone who wants a career in quality, as are statistics, data science, manufacturing engineering, and telecommunications. Cybersecurity and intelligence will become increasingly more central to quality management, so these are also good directions to take. Or, consider applying for an interdisciplinary program like JMU’s Integrated Science and Technology where I teach. We’re developing a new 21-credit sector right now where you can study EVERYTHING in the list above! Also, certifications are a plus, but in addition to completing training programs be sure to get formally certified by a professional organization to make sure that your credentials are widely recognized (e.g. through ASQ and ATMAE).
 Evans, J. R. (2015). Modern Analytics and the Future of Quality and Performance Excellence. The Quality Management Journal, 22(4), 6.
 Radziwill, N. M., Benton, M. C., Boadu, K., & Perdomo, W., 2015: A Case-Based Look at Integrating Social Context into Software Quality. Software Quality Professional, December.