Professor Mary Ludden, PhD, MBA, contemplates the future of project management in an increasingly automated world.
There is no shortage of information about the expansion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the impact it will have on every facet of our lives. Not too many years ago, there was much skepticism around the use of AI for anything other than repetitive tasks that could be duplicated through machine learning. We now know that AI can be developed to perform complex tasks that once could only be performed by human beings.
AI now exists in the automotive, aerospace, healthcare, and financial industries, and these are just a few of the sectors included on what is becoming a very exhaustive list of industries leveraging advanced robots. In fact, a new report issued by the McKinsey Global Institute in late 2017 suggests that as many as 375 million workers globally, or approximately 14 percent of the global workforce, will be impacted by automation and may need to evolve their skill sets to adapt to the impact of AI.
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How Will AI Affect the Project Management Discipline?
Like many other professions, project management will not be immune to the impacts of AI. Many phases of the project lifecycle will undergo an evolution in which traditionally manual tasks performed by humans become complex tasks performed by machines. Here are two key examples:
Take risk management for example. It is very common to have a project team develop a risk register using various inputs at the onset of a project, and have them update the register as they become aware of new risks through conversations with stakeholders, observations of the work in progress, or schedule delays based upon impacts from a dependency. I used to refer to the risks listed in the initial project register as “a foregone conclusion.”
The risk register was typically built by a team that had experience within their organizations leading similar projects, so they had become adept at listing the risks that had traditionally impacted their projects based on historical knowledge. Eventually, those risks would become issues, impacting the project team for a variety of reasons, including poor root-cause analysis or project managers who had not coalesced the information in a form that could be evaluated by enterprise risk teams. The challenge with always listing the inherent risks that you know is that your register becomes stagnant and may not capture the emerging threats to your project that you have not encountered yet as a project manager.
But what if a smart machine could synthesize two years’ worth of risk and issue logs to assign a risk index rating based upon sophisticated algorithms, thereby leveraging historical data to predict the future success or failure of a project? What if this robot could assess the performance of dependent systems to identify end-of-life risks to your project or security vulnerabilities to the product you are developing? With the introduction of AI, project managers—and the organizations they support—will see significant time, money, and resources saved.
Many project managers leverage Organizational Process Asset repositories or historical business information to estimate a project’s duration, costs, and progress. Many times, a top-down estimate is performed by functional management in haste so that a project can be fast-tracked, or a bottoms-up estimate is completed by the team members performing the work who may be too conservative in their estimates, leading to inflated costs.
What if a robot could take three years’ worth of historical information from the project organization, leveraging productivity rates, attrition rates, holiday time, etc. to come up with an estimate of the project that could be utilized to forecast investment needs? What if you could leverage intelligent process automation (IPA) to assign routine project tasks to robots and assign the more critical, complex tasks to your human project team members?
We currently think of cross-functional teams as groups comprised of individuals matrixed to a variety of functional managers. But, what if cross-functional teams may soon refer to a blend of humans and robots? Projections indicate that this may be the case by 2020, and that project managers will have to evolve their skill sets to adapt to this change. Research indicates that emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility will be the top skills needed to function effectively on this type of team.
So—how do we, as project managers, prepare for the potential impact of AI on our industry?
Preparing for AI’s Impact on Project Management
First and foremost, project managers must embrace the technology and leverage AI where possible to increase the likelihood of project success. We as humans have unique critical thinking skill sets that when applied to systems, projects, and achieving an organizational mission, can create insights and recommendations needed to propel the project forward to a successful conclusion.
Leveraging AI to automate and improve data sets utilized in project execution will allow your organization to realize optimal investment value in the project and potentially identify savings that could be leveraged for further investments in product development leading to organizational growth. How cool is that?
Northeastern University is at the forefront of incorporating AI into our curriculum through experiential learning opportunities as explained by President Joseph Aoun in his book Robot-Proof. Check out Northeastern University’s catalog of project management degree and certificate programs to learn how you can join our mission of developing “robot-proof” students and become part of an innovative institution leading this new age of technology.
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