AI and Project Management – Losing the Human Touch?

human touch

The world that we are living in is being reshaped at an alarming rate. There are changes of all kinds going on around us all the time from shifts in global power, to urbanisation, climate change and of course significant breakthroughs in technology. All these changes represent significant opportunities and challenges to business and government alike. However, it is technological breakthroughs and the impact of such advances as Artificial Intelligence (AI) that will likely have a significant impact on the workforce of the future. This impact will almost certainly extend to the role of the project manager.

It is an industry-wide belief that the displacement effect that will result from the introduction of AI will hit in three very distinct waves. The first, which is expected to last until the early 2020s will be algorithmic. The second, which will take place in the late 2020s is augmentation, and the final wave at some point during the mid-2030s will be autonomy. Whilst it is only expected that the first wave will impact just a small number of jobs (around 3%), it is a wider belief that up to 30% of jobs will have been automated by the time the final wave is reached. These are jobs that could be replaced with AI, manual and clerical roles for the most part. It is therefore clear that there is a significant need for upskilling within the workforce. Technology will continue to evolve at a pace that is ever-increasing and therefore the skill set of employees will also need to increase if it is to adapt and keep up with these changes if there is any chance for everyone to thrive in the new era that AI will bring.

Project management a brief timeline

Project management has been around since the building of the pyramids of Giza circa 2550 – 2490 BC.

  • In 1917 Henry Gantt created the Gantt chart, a scheduling diagram.
  • 1950s project management tools and techniques (things like CPM and PERT) started to be applied by organisations.
  • 1960s the approach known as the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) was created, this is still a commonly used project management tool.
  • 1970s – 1980s there was a significant growth in the field of companies dealing in project management software.
  • 1990s this was a significant period of major developments in internet domination. Business practises went through significant changes and in particular the field of project management.
  • 2000 – current day, more developments in the field of project management software and the emergence of cloud-based software.

Project management is continually evolving

The idea of managing a project in the workplace has been a concept that has been around for a considerable length of time. Project management is something that has certainly evolved over time and is now a particular career path that many individuals choose to follow, with a range of qualifications that can be taken to help project managers to manage their projects batter.

The origins of project management can actually be traced back all the way to the construction of the pyramids of Giza which took place over 4,500 years ago. The concepts of project management that were used all that time ago, whilst still giving us an insight into the very basics of project management, have become the much more streamlined and complex process that we have today. New concepts and ideas, together with new technologies, are continually being added to the field of project management. Even the most experienced project manager needs to keep abreast of all of the industry changes if they want to keep themselves up to date with all the latest innovations.

The advent of the internet was undeniably one of the single biggest game changers for project management. The development of software systems that allow stakeholders to access and look through project information from a different location, reports to be produced for anything and everything, and at any time and from anywhere, and of course the increase in access to real time data – all of these things have revolutionised the field of project management. They have streamlined the entire process and made a significant number of the elements of managing a project much easier for the project manager. It is no longer necessary to sift through piles of papers to find the figures and statistics required to complete a report, chasing up information from team members and then collating it to ensure that everything needed is available. If every member of a project team uses the software to keep details of their part of a project updated at all times, then this information is readily available. Technology in project management is certainly not a bad thing, it has provided so many advantages over the years and just like other areas of project management these improvements are continually being upgraded.

These tools which are readily available in more basic and comprehensive versions can assist when it comes to optimising efficiency

How might AI change project management?

In the future the role of the project manager and how the discipline of project management will function is likely to change as a result of AI. A significant amount of the work that is done today by project managers, those traditional project management functions, is likely to have been eliminated and instead AI will have taken over these roles. These are things like data collection, performance reporting and tracking.

The role of the project manager will still be a valid one, that will be integral to the success of any project. However, there will be a shift in the type of work that is carried out by a project manager. The integration of AI capabilities into a range of new procedures and practises will see the project manager role move away from managing towards a more leadership role. This will allow for a much greater emphasis on those all-important soft skills, things like listening, communication, emotional intelligence and problem solving. Whilst AI is great at what it does it simply does not, yet, have the capability to replace these skills which need the human touch.

What AI can do, and is undeniably good at, is things like analysing data. This is something that it can do with a great deal more speed and dexterity than your average human. This is not a bad thing as it will provide project managers with a greater quantity of higher quality data as well as some insights into how to improve the quality, speed, and accuracy of much of the decision making they will be looking at during the project lifecycle.

The benefits of AI

Whilst it is certainly true that AI lacks the human touch and there are a number of areas of project management where it is unlikely that it will replace individuals it almost certainly has its place. Those mundane tasks, the repetitive ones that over time humans can become complacent about completing, and may even begin to make mistakes with, these can easily be done by AI. AI is the perfect solution for doing this type of task and will not make the kind of mistakes that a human on auto pilot may well make. This means that there will be no issues to impede the progress of the project and fewer mistakes.

When an unexpected issue occurs in a project AI is able to run a number of different scenarios in order to offer a number of possible effective solutions, this is something that it can do far quicker than an individual. Good project management must be proactive and these predictions that can be made by AI are a considerable amount more accurate than those that may be offered by a traditional software solution. It can still look at the all the risks, responses, and probabilities together with any possible impacts, but it can draw on historical data far more effectively in order to do this. Because it can be used to track the progress of a project it can be used to warn a project manager as soon as a risk arises, no matter what this risk relates to. It can examine things like time constraints and cost assumptions and rank any possible outcomes that it produces in order to show which one will be the best one for the project circumstances.

The data that it can use to do this will be real time, it can even scan documents and emails to look for potential issues that might occur. For example looking at future contracts in order to spot any potential and unseen risks based on its understanding of the performance of previous projects.

These capabilities are far beyond those that can be carried out by existing project management software which is best suited for assisting the project manager in keeping a project on track and under control. It can look at information much faster than any individual which means if project team members are continually using project software as it has been designed to be used and updating it as soon as there are any advances in the work of the project, then it can see issues before anyone else has a chance to see them.

AI and project managers, the perfect partnership?

Whilst AI might seem like it could replace a project manager this is simply not going to be the case. There is still a need, and always likely to be, for the human touch within any project. Used correctly it is true that AI might push the responsibilities of a project manager in a different direction, however it seems unlikely that it will ever fully replace the human element. According to “The Workplace of the Future” survey carried out by PwC 73% of individuals would agree that it is unlikely that technology will ever actually replace the human mind. It can be a great tool that will work in harmony with the project manager, but it still requires a human to do things like input the key data that it requires to make its predictions and to spot patterns.

Project managers depend on AI to help them do their job, and AI depends on project managers, and other project team members to continually input the information that they need in order to do their job.

When it comes to the soft skills that are so vital to the smooth running of any project team this may well become the area that in the future project managers will find themselves more heavily involved in. There is no doubt that a balance between the skills of a project manager and the technology of AI will prove to be an invaluable tool in the field of project management when they work in harmony.

About the Author

Paul Naybour is the Business Development Director for Parallel Project Training. He is a well-known speaker in the APM Branch Network, a Project Management Trainer and Consultant. He also runs the PM news site Project Accelerator


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