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AI and the future of project management

Greg Usher
October 14, 2020

With thanks to the Australian Institute of Project Management

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a broad field that incorporates smart machines, machine learning and reasoning, ro/chat/web bots, artificial neural networks and new programming parameters.

But the new machines and software that we see now are only the first in what will eventually become a new industrial revolution which will fundamentally redefine global economic systems, create new labour markets and challenge our understanding of ‘personhood’.

If current research is correct, more than one third of graduate level jobs will be replaced by some form of AI in the next decade. In fact, by the end of 2020, the AI industry is predicted to reach US$36 billion globally, and this figure is forecast to grow exponentially to US$127 billion by 2025, making AI the largest driver of tech spending in the next five years.

With this new industrial revolution poised to have such a profound impact, it would seem naïve to believe that the field of project management will survive this revolution unscathed. This takes a futurist perspective of the profession and looks at how it may change over the next five to 10 years.

The rise of the machines

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the impact of AI is the speed of its adoption. The drivers behind this rapid change are the confluence of data collection and analysis, massive leaps forward in computing power and better algorithms. Together these drivers are already making inroads into the profession of project management.

Within the project management space, AI has already begun to take over some of the routine administration tasks. Activities such as creation and maintenance of registers and logs, automated meetings preparation including booking rooms, emailing invitations and drafting agendas.

In addition, AI is taking over paper-based communications such as minuting meetings, following up on action items via automated emails and preparing monthly reports.

But this is only the start. By 2025, we can expect to see machine learning-based platforms that can:

  • –schedule projects
  • –assign resources
  • –create basic cost plans
  • –assist with contract interpretation and administration
  • –undertake earned value assessments
  • –forecast completion costs
  • –assist with identifying trends for opportunity capitalisation; and
  • –provide risk mitigation.

By 2030, expect to see things like automated site inspections using LiDAR-enabled drones linked to detailed BIM and intelligent contracts and standards. Programs will be able to identify in-situ quality errors and predict clash detection on building sites. There also will be systems which provide real-time assessment of project progress, allowing them to calculate progress claims, raise claims for extensions of time or lodge variations without human intervention.

In fact, I expect that within a decade – and I’m being conservative – we will see most, if not all, of the 47 processes outlined in PMBoK that relate to ‘traditional project management’, the planning, monitoring and control of time, cost and scope, handled by AI, machine learning programs and bots.

Based on this prediction it would be easy, and perhaps a little justified, to think of AI as Project Management Terminators, machines from the future intent on destroying the profession as we know it. But nothing could be further from the truth. You see, although AI might be far better at routine, repetitious or mundane project administration tasks than any human project manager could ever be, we need to ask ourselves ‘What is AI not good at?’ because, in that question lies the future of project management.

Project management in the future

The rise of AI has the potential to do something amazing for the future of project management, and it all has to do with the three things that AI may never be good at:

  1. creativity;
  2. social skills; and
  3. perceptiveness.

For almost six decades, project managers have ‘defined’ their profession by the Iron Triangle of time, cost and scope. This has been our mantra for so long that we have almost forgotten the reason projects exist. Projects exist to serve human needs. This means that it is people, not tasks or processes, that are at the heart of projects.

A recent global study by KPMG found that 46% of the project managers interviewed believed that ‘managing people’ was the most important factor in delivering a successful project. This was contrasted against 28% who felt that technology made all the difference and 26% who felt it was either the processes or governance that were the critical success factors.

In light of the rise of AI, this is fantastic news for our profession! By alleviating the burden of repetitive, mundane and routine process driven tasks, AI will free project managers to focus their attention on the most critical area of project success – managing people.

You see, for all its data driven learning, AI cannot to do things like create a project vision, build a team, create a culture and develop camaraderie. AI might never be able to discern hidden agendas and drivers that cause stakeholders to make seemingly irrational decisions. AI might be able to forecast when we are diverting from the program schedule, but that doesn’t mean it has the ability to find a creative solution to the problem, resolve the conflicts created by that deviation and then garner the consensus needed to get the project back on track. These ‘human-centred’ skills are the grease that keeps the machinery of every project running smoothly. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, they are outside the realm of plausibility for AI.

What next?

There’s is no point in denying it. AI is here, and it’s here to stay. What’s more is that it will impact on the practice of project management. But perhaps that is not a bad thing; after all, creative destruction is one of the fundamental tenets of Schumpeterian economics – the old must be destroyed in order make way for something better.

This shift in the way project management will be ‘done’ shouldn’t alarm anyone, provided you are making yourself ready for coming changes and not just sticking your head in the sand.

So what can you do to future proof yourself as a project manager? I would recommend educating yourself on AI and what it can do, engaging with AI so that you are keeping pace with the changes in our industry and honing your project management ‘soft skills’, things like leadership, emotional intelligence, personal communication (conflict resolution, consensus building and persuasion) and creative problem solving.

The field of AI is both fascinating and frightening, but we must always keep in mind that AI is just a tool. The quicker we learn to use that tool the faster it can begin to make our jobs easier.

This article was originally published by the Australian Institute of Project Management in the Project Management Revolution | Summer 2019/20 edition of Paradigm Shift as ‘The impact of AI on the Australian project management industry’ and has been reproduced with permission. It has been edited to fit house style.

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Greg Usher
Dr Greg Usher is the Executive General Manager for Project Management (Buildings and Property) in Australia Asia Pacific at RPS Group, a multi-disciplinary consulting organisation. He has more than 20 years’ experience delivering large and complex projects domestically and internationally. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Project Management and a Certified Practicing Project Executive.
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