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How far can machines take over project management?

Like every other industry sector, project management is being transformed by new technologies, such as big data, analytics and artificial intelligence (AI). Data already plays a pivotal role in decision-making processes, enabling project managers to track progress. So it is perhaps inevitable that the next few years will see more project management tasks being undertaken by intelligent systems.

The question is, how far can this go?

Bernard Marr, a global expert in data and author of Data Strategy, believes that we are experiencing the calm before the storm. He says: “AI is not yet widely applied in project management, but I believe this will change. We’ve seen a rise in the use of AI natural language virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana to co-ordinate tasks in other areas of our lives, so it is inevitable that project management will be next.

“Large projects generate huge amounts of complex data that needs to be analysed and monitored to create valuable insights and predictions about a project’s progress. Fed with the right data, AI systems could accurately produce information on budgets or estimated time frames in real time, something that even the most experienced human project managers could never do.”

In a recent survey of project managers by AXELOS, a UK government and Capita joint venture, 57 per cent expect AI and machine-learning to have a profound impact on project management, with 59 per cent believing that as automation increases, daily routine tasks of project management will no longer be a burden on them. However, 90 per cent agreed that new technologies would generate risks which need to be managed carefully.

AXELOS’ head of product development Cameron Stewart says: “Automation may make certain tasks easier, but ultimately, emotional intelligence and soft skills such as communication, diplomacy and relationship-building will be vital for the delivery of successful projects. Great project management will always combine a people-first approach with high-grade technical project management skills and knowledge.”

One industry sector where AI could make inroads in terms of improving efficiency and cost effectiveness in business operations is banking. Dan Hooper, chief executive of AI intelligence agency Piccadilly Group, says: “We regularly see a clear lack of vision from major banks and their project management teams when it comes to delivering projects on time and to cost, leading to major cost overruns and huge delays to these programmes. Most of this work is overseen by high-cost project management teams, with the majority employed to do low-value and repetitive tasks such as reporting, project forecasting and budget calculations.

Artificial intelligence will first tackle any repetitive and routine tasks

“Using AI, banks could apply smart technology across a multitude of devices and platforms, allowing them to instantly respond to questions and provide updates through voice recognition or AI chatbots, giving a complete, real-time view of ongoing programmes. Dynamic reporting and metrics insight will be instantly available, removing the need for large project management teams, cutting out middle managers and saving banks money by allowing those in charge to make easy, informed decisions without the hassle and politics of unnecessarily large management teams.”

The negatives

However, as Robert Dagge, managing director at business intelligence firm Dynistics, points out, not every company or project management team has the scale or business model to benefit from this high-level form of analytics.

“Most companies don’t properly use the data they already have, let alone AI, and it is putting a strain on project managers,” he says. “They could be using standard business intelligence tools to make smarter decisions now. These tools can turn large amounts of raw data into useful and visual information, aiding the decision-making process. They can deliver insights that provide businesses with a competitive advantage and help their long-term stability.”

Nevertheless, Mr Dagge accepts that the appetite for AI is huge, simply because its possibilities are endless. “Whether we like it or not, AI and automation are coming,” he says. “All of us, including project managers, will need to adapt to this change, otherwise the chances are we’ll lose our jobs.”

The pace at which technology is evolving suggests that eventually there will be no project management task that intelligent robots can’t perform better than humans. But until then, insists Mr Marr, some roles will be immune from the prospect of automation. “These include any strategic oversight tasks, tasks that require creativity, as well as those that rely on emotional intelligence,” he says. “AI will first tackle any repetitive and routine tasks, as well as the tasks that require data crunching, such as project monitoring and forecasting.”