Will AI replace the project manager?

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Depending on who you ask, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is either going to save humanity, or lead to our total destruction. Of course, that’s a bit of a simplification. Nonetheless, AI is a topic that polarises opinion.

And the area where most debate about the effects of AI has happened so far is in relation to the workplace: will robots steal peoples’ jobs? There’s been a lot of speculation about this topic. For instance, an oft-cited 2013 study by academics at Oxford University suggested that almost half of American jobs could be taken over by a machine within the next decade. Many commentators worry that automation will steal a significant slice of our industries - yet for every naysayer, there’s a technology optimist who says AI will result in even more jobs that are more fulfilling.

Project management (PM) is one sector that I believe is likely to be impacted by AI-enhanced technology in the next few years. Machines could carry out a broad range of common project management tasks which are currently carried out manually, and potentially do them faster and more efficiently than human project managers. Think about some of the tasks an ‘AI project manager’ could perform especially well:

  • Optimally assigning resources
  • Balancing projects across a portfolio
  • Creating regular reports and highlighting any problems

While most project management skills remain beyond the reach of computers – think communication, leadership, common sense – if a machine can take over more of the administrative duties involved in project management, will this mean there are fewer jobs in future for project managers?

To answer that question, we first need to gain greater clarity about artificial intelligence.

What actually is AI?

It often seems to me that much of the concern about Artificial Intelligence stems from representations in popular culture and sci-fi movies. The picture is of robots which are smarter than humans, who can outwit our tiny organic brains and, therefore, destroy us for their own malicious purposes.

Thankfully, though, the technology available today is far from this nightmare scenario.

Instead, in the majority of cases, what we call ‘AI’ actually refers to the use of computers for advanced computing activities that go beyond traditional calculations. This involves things like classification of faces, voices and text to find patterns. This is by any account impressive - but there’s no way this is comparable to the cognitive intelligence of humans.

And, while AI is receiving a lot of hype and attention these days, it’s not all new. Most people will have used and benefitted from this kind of ‘intelligent’ decision making by machines without even having been aware – think of your email spam filter, music and film recommendations on your favourite streaming service, product suggestions on Amazon. These are all examples of AI in action.

So, how could AI be used in project management?

When it comes to project management, I believe that AI could excel at certain pattern-matching activities and analysis which take up a lot of the time of project managers today. Project managers often spend hours working with clunky software trying to beat it into shape so that a project’s tasks, sub-tasks and resources are all aligned and allocated correctly and to budget. And then, once they’ve finally laid down their plans, they need to adapt to the inevitable changes which arise over the course of a project.

Now, what if a machine could be asked to take over this, frankly, tedious part of the project management profession? Let’s picture what AI-enhanced project management would look like: 

The tool could suggest better portfolio planning 

Every time you begin planning out a new project, your AI assistant could analyse your entire portfolio and suggest more efficient alternatives to your current plans. Because the software knows from experience, for example, how fast certain tasks are completed, it could suggest more realistic timeframes for the project. This would ensure project timelines are not unrealistically optimistic. At the same time, it would be able to perform countless ‘what if’ analyses, in order to discover the best possible management of your portfolio. 

It could allocate resources more effectively 

An AI system would be able to search your entire ‘catalogue’ of resources, review their current availability and suggest which activities they could perform. This would save you time when deciding which employees should be placed where. It would also help you avoid individual idle time, by automatically hunting for additional tasks for individual employees and suggesting jobs for them to do. 

The tool could carry out more powerful and objective reporting 

Humans are fallible. Even the best project manager might have an overly-optimistic view of their project’s progress, or due to general business, simply miss certain deadlines or fail to realise that a project is having problems before it’s too late. An AI-enhanced project management tool could provide realistic and objective reports on project progress every week. It would warn you of any project delays and carry out analysis of project health before reporting back to you. This would then help with decision making, and cut the chances of project delays and failures.

What these examples show is that artificial intelligence could serve a powerful role as an assistant to the project manager, helping improve quality and avoiding mistakes. Think of it like the automatic spellchecker in a word processing document, highlighting any issues, suggesting alternative approaches,  - but just much more powerful.

The aim would never be to replace the project manager (just as a spellchecker doesn’t replace the writer). Instead, the benefit of using AI in project management is that it would help enhance and improve what the project manager does – meaning there are fewer errors, making the project more likely to run on time, ensuring resources are deployed most appropriately.

Project managers should embrace AI

As AI has gradually come into the mainstream, there’s been a lot of concern about what it means for all sorts of jobs – from retail staff to physicians to lawyers. While there’s little doubt that certain professions will be affected by AI, much of the speculation has been overly negative and based on unrealistic expectations.

Instead, we expect to see a future where AI offers a supporting role to project managers, helping them automate certain tricky and repetitive tasks, and discovering errors before they happen. This might sound a lot less exciting than many descriptions of our AI future. But, it’s also a lot more likely. 

Greg Bailey, Vice President Resource Management, ProSymmetry