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The impact of AI on project management

Dr Greg Usher explores how artificial intelligence (AI) is shaping the world of project management. This article was originally published in the Australian Institute of Project Management's Paradigm Shift magazine.

21 January 2020
Greg Usher

Australia

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines. It encompasses automation, machine learning, machine vision, natural language processing and robotics. 

The reaction to AI has been a mixed bag. While some view it as destroyer of jobs, others hail it as a promoter of innovation. Either way, both schools of thought agree that AI will be disruptive and will revolutionise the way industries function.

If current research is to be believed, AI or some form of it will replace one third of all graduate jobs by as early as 2030. In terms of industry size, a recent IDC report states that spending on AI systems will reach $97.9 billion in 2023, more than two and a half times the $37.5 billion that will be spent in 2019.

With such a profound impact, the project management industry too will also see a paradigm shift driven by AI. Let’s examine what the project management profession will look like in the next 5-10 years in the wake of this technological disruption.

AI and project management

The swift adoption of AI has been catalysed by its data-intensive and analytical nature, backed by advancements in computing and better algorithms.

AI is already being used for administrative tasks like maintaining registers and logs, automated meeting preparation including the booking of rooms, emailing of invitations, agenda drafting and minuting of meetings. It will gradually evolve to handle more complex project management tasks.

According to current forecasts, by 2025 AI will be able to:

  • 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 risk mitigation.

By 2030 it’s expected that AI will conduct automated site inspections using LiDAR-enabled drones that are linked to detailed building information management (BIM) systems, intelligent contracts and standards.

Programmes will identify in-situ quality errors and predict clashes on building sites. There will also be systems that provide real-time assessment of project progress, allowing them to calculate progress claims, raise claims for extensions of time or lodge variations before any human ever becomes involved in the process.

In addition to this, AI will handle most (if not all) of the 47 processes outlined in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK) that relate to ‘traditional project management’.

Many view artificial intelligence as a ‘Project Management Terminator’. The truth however, is that AI will complement project management professionals rather than supplant them.

Dr Greg Usher

Executive General Manager - Project Management

AI will complement existing project management skills

AI is very good at monotonous, data-driven tasks. It is bad with creativity, social skills and perceptiveness. Let’s understand what this means for project management.  

Project managers have always focused on the ‘iron triangle’ of time, cost and scope, often at the expense of important areas like people management.

A recent global study by KPMG found that 46 per cent of the project managers interviewed believed that ‘managing people’ was the most important factor in delivering a successful project. Twenty-eight per cent felt that technology was the key factor, while 26 per cent felt it was either processes or governance that were critical for success.

This implies that by taking on routine data-driven tasks, AI frees project management teams to focus on core areas like people management, project vision, team building and network development.

AI may forecast diversions from a program schedule, but it can’t provide a solution for them. It can’t resolve the conflicts created by a deviation or garner the consensus needed to get a project back on track.

These ‘human-centred’ skills form the grease that keeps the machinery of every project running smoothly – and right now, and for the foreseeable future, they are outside the realm of AI.

The next steps for project management professionals

AI is here to stay and will, without doubt, cause a lot of disruption. But this creative destruction is one of the fundamental tenets of Schumpeterian economics – the old must be destroyed in order make way for something better.

Thriving in the project management space will, therefore, be contingent on how well AI is not just welcomed, but embraced.

To be 'AI ready', project managers must stay updated on the latest AI applications in the project management space. We must invest in the honing of skills like leadership, emotional intelligence, personal communication (conflict resolution, consensus building and persuasion) and creative problem solving–skills that complement AI.

Despite all the hype and fascination around artificial intelligence, at the end of the day, AI is a tool to facilitate productivity. The sooner we learn to engage it, the easier all our jobs will become.