Artificial intelligence in project management – friend or foe?

We look at the introduction of AI to project management and whether it can ever replace human project managers.
Written by
Daniel Dovaston
Published on
November 10, 2020
Artificial intelligence in project management – friend or foe?

Advances in technology are meant to make our work lives easier, providing efficiency and automation to manual processes. In this latest opinion piece, we examine the introduction of AI to project management and whether it can ever replace human project managers.

Projects and the nature of them have changed and evolved throughout human history, from the building of the pyramids over 2000 years ago, to putting a man on the moon, through to the delivery of large scale modern projects such as the building of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, or the International Space Station (ISS). The scope of delivery across all of these and other enterprises can vary vastly in terms of size, complexity, skills and technologies. But one thing remains a constant across them all – at the heart of everything is a project manager tasked with getting the job done.

The role of project manager within any project is a critical one and project success can often be determined by the strengths, skills and character of the person in this role, as they’re ultimately responsible and tasked with coordinating the activities within it. The aptitude of that individual to be able to identify all the necessary resources (people and other) required, plan the timings of when each is needed, remove blockers and be there to support the members of the team are key traits that any project manager must have to do the job well.

These skills and traits would have been needed in spades for projects and programmes such as the Apollo missions, a great example of how important it would have been for each piece to come together at the right time, in the right order, and in the right place. Otherwise you wouldn’t have had a rocket to seat the astronauts in, let alone fly to the moon. The people skills needed would have been as equally critical, as they were having to do things that had never been done before and under significant pressure to make it work due to the project sponsor (President Kennedy) setting an ambitious timeline to get a person on the moon by the end of the decade.

Although the challenges are different 50 years down the road from the Apollo programme (now we’re trying to get to Mars instead of the moon), the traits needed of the person managing such complex projects are still the same today. But we do have a few tools and tricks up our sleeves to help us get the job done a little easier nowadays.

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One such tool and technology that has seen substantial growth and development over the past five to ten years is the commercial application of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Tools using AI can gather, analyse and make decisions from vast quantities of data and information in seconds – processes that computers 50 years ago would have taken years to complete. Their application across every industry is potentially limitless and billed as the one thing that has the biggest potential to revolutionise our lives. Be it new ways to diagnose medical conditions, the development of new medicines and treatments, creation of new elements to provide new ways to power society, or to probe the origins of the universe in projects such as the Large Hadron Collider in CERN. It’s no surprise that companies such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and even national governments are spending tremendous amounts of money to develop their capabilities in AI-led technology.

Project management is another field that has been tipped as one that may experience the biggest transformation due to the introduction of AI technologies – something that may change the role of project managers exponentially.

The application of AI technologies within project management is varied and has caused for a lot of concern amongst project managers who worry that these new tools will render them useless and obsolete, as ultimately a machine can analyse data in real-time across various points of the project and react quickly based on its findings. So naturally this gives rise to the key question of:

Should AI be considered a friend or foe to the project manager?

Machines may be good for collating and analysing vast quantities of data in real-time, but they don’t currently possess the ability to engage on a human and personal level with people. Their interactions are very transactional and will be based around set rules and set parameters, but analysing the behaviour of people relies on a much more relational-based approach. Being able to recognise when someone in your team is struggling or lacks confidence can often only be elicited through the project manager investing some time in that person and talking to them. Being then able to take this information, empathise and understand from a personal level is key to being in a position to suggest an appropriate way forward. Given that AI isn’t ‘currently’ able to understand these more complex social interactions and behaviours, it does limit them to a more data-driven role within projects.

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So does that mean that AI use is currently really limited?

Far from it, the real value of AI-augmented tools exists in being able to support the project manager to do their job more effectively. They do this by analysing and monitoring patterns and performance within the project and then use this data to alert the project manager to potential issues. They’re also particularly adept at enhancing resource scheduling and decision making on what resource to use and when, to provide the optimum efficiency for the delivery of the project.

A recent article by Forbes defined the value of AI in project management as:

…enabling project managers to spend more time focusing on their employees, which can in turn help them to empower their employees and find further efficiencies. There is nothing that will slow a project down more than a project manager who simply does not have time to speak to every single team member’s needs. With the time saved using AI-enabled project management systems, these managers can focus more on what matters to them.

- Forbes 2019, AI in Project Management

Being able to free up the project manager’s time from focusing on admin and monitoring tasks is critical, as it allows them to invest more time in supporting their team and ensuring that their needs are being met (both from an personal but also practical perspective e.g. removing blockers).

AI has the ability to watch all of the moving parts and then make valuable predictions based off of what it is seeing. AI is capable of monitoring budgets and scheduling, and over time it can learn to identify potential impacts to these processes.

- Forbes 2019, AI in Project Management

Resource management and scheduling, budget control and monitoring are all activities that involve a large amount of data and moving patterns – they constantly change and flex based on the behaviours of individuals within the project and also by environmental factors within it e.g. changes in the industry, activities by 3rd parties, etc. Having the ability to analyse this data in real-time, using complex modelling techniques allows them to make predictions and suggest the optimal course of action, allowing them to thrive within this particular area of project management.

A number of providers of project management software are now making it a must to include AI technology within their platforms, so that the project manager can take advantage of some of the benefits mentioned above. The Forecast Project Management App for example, incorporates AI technology into their scheduling tools, so that resource bookings and needs across the team can be analysed, fed into the master schedule of work and then the software offers suggestions for new resource requirements when new projects are created.

So does it look as though AI will be replacing project managers anytime soon?

AI is a work augmentation tool, not a human replacement. AI cannot manage a project, even a pretty small one, on its own.

Software Advice 2020, 5 Benefits of Artificial Intelligence in Project Management

Where the true power and use of AI technology comes in right now is its ability to allow the project manager to focus on doing what they do best – managing stakeholders, ensuring continued buy-in to the project, supporting colleagues and actually becoming more of a project leader than a project manager. The technology and capabilities AI possesses will continue to develop and may ultimately begin to encroach on the area of managing projects. But as this happens, new opportunities will be created that allow the people doing these roles currently to enhance their skills and add value in other ways within the project.

AI isn’t something to be feared, it should be embraced. Just as any change in projects should be embraced. Ultimately any project manager that’s worth their salt will know that the key to being good and effective in the role doesn’t mean doing every part of the project, but instead knowing where best to focus time and attention to bring the maximum value to both the project, those working on it and, of course, the end user.

If you have a project to discuss then get in touch, we’d love to hear from you.

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