Artificial Intelligence Has The Potential to Allow Project Managers to Focus on Higher-Value Work. The Question Is: Are They Ready?
BY S.A. SWANSON
The impact of artificial intelligence (AI) is real. And it's only going to intensify. By 2024, global investment in emerging AI technologies is projected to reach US$3 trillion—up from US$126 billion in 2015, according to a 2016 Transparency Market Research report. As AI ascends, it has the power to fundamentally transform project management decision making.
The information-gathering capabilities of AI could help reduce human error and biases when it comes to creating budgets, predicting cost overruns and developing schedules. For example, a subset of AI called machine learning—using algorithms to predict outcomes— could analyze massive amounts of historical data from past projects to identify and assess thousands of schedule possibilities and help project managers select the best option.
“AI is not going to replace project managers. But it is definitely going to be a key tool in the project manager's toolbox to improve delivery practices,” says Saravanan Mugund, associate director of Emerging Business Accelerator automation venture, Cognizant Technology Solutions Pvt. Ltd., Chennai, India.
AI-assisted tools could mean that project monitoring and schedule changes require less time and fewer resources. These efficiencies will allow project managers to focus on areas where AI falls short, such as people skills and team building. The tools could also help project leaders devote more time to ensuring that projects remain in tune with the business case and aligned with organizational goals, says Boris Petukhov, senior project manager, Argo Computing Services Pty. Ltd., Melbourne, Australia.
“AI is going to enable and elevate project managers to do high-value functions,” he says.
“AI APPLICATIONS ARE ALL ABOUT CAPTURING INFORMATION FASTER, IN GREATER DETAIL, TO MAKE BETTER DECISIONS.”
—Lee Stogner, PMP, Vincula Group, Greenville, South Carolina, USA
AI's potential applications in the realm of project management are broad. But its data assimilation and analysis capabilities initially will be most useful for eliminating human error during project planning and decision making, Mr. Mugund says.
“Machine learning can estimate effort and cost for each work breakdown structure with better accuracy, using the input of details like type of activity, resources involved, environment and skill set required, [along] with historical project data,” he says.
“THE PROJECT MANAGER DEFINES HIS OR HER INFORMATION NEEDS, AND THE DATA MINING ALGORITHM COMPUTES THE VARIABLES.”
—Adrian Müller, PMP, University of Applied Sciences Kaiserslautern, Zweibrücken, Germany
Such an AI application can benefit organizations that struggle to maintain and draw lessons from past project data such as original schedule, team members, skill sets, functions and complexity of tasks. This historical data can help improve scheduling and other functions, which might be next-to-impossible for humans to assimilate, Mr. Mugund says. “Project managers won't be able to make full use of even a fraction of the real wealth this data offers, but AI and machine learning are very good at this,” he says.
For instance, in software development projects with past quality data, AI can help to estimate the number of test cases required or predict the defect count in subsequent releases with greater accuracy, Mr. Mugund says.
And armed with regular data inputs detailing project developments, AI tools can boost risk management practices. “They can help the project manager do better in quantitative risk management and make the right decision to mitigate or avoid the risks,” he says. “This can help predict and avoid huge cost overruns.”
For example, AI tools can quantitatively evaluate the delivery risk for certain hardware from a particular vendor on a regular basis. The AI tool can analyze the vendor's past performance data and current requirement details such as lead time, location of delivery, and uniqueness and complexity of the hardware. “This will help the project manager know when to mitigate risk and change to plan B for hardware delivery,” Mr. Mugund says.
Widespread adoption of AI in the project management world could be two or three years away, as skills and resources lag. However, integration of AI into enterprise software has already begun, says Lee Stogner, PMP, president of Vincula Group, Greenville, South Carolina, USA. “For project management, AI chatbots are enabling new ways to interface with people and ask questions, provide advice and keep the resources of a project focused on the goals of the project,” he says. “These chatbots reduce the load on the project managers and enable them to provide better support for critical activities within their project.”
PHOTO BY STUDIO A
“AI IS NOT GOING TO REPLACE PROJECT MANAGERS. BUT IT IS DEFINITELY GOING TO BE A KEY TOOL IN THE PROJECT MANAGER‘S TOOLBOX.”
—Saravanan Mugund, Cognizant Technology Solutions Pvt. Ltd., Chennai, India
For instance, project teams can use a cloud-based messaging platform built around natural language processing software to help reduce the time project managers spend providing information to update the project status, Mr. Stogner says. “AI applications are all about capturing information faster, in greater detail, to make better decisions,” he says. “More tools are coming that will create virtual project managers by incorporating machine and human knowledge into rules and algorithms.”
“AI IS GOING TO ENABLE AND ELEVATE PROJECT MANAGERS TO DO HIGH-VALUE FUNCTIONS.”
—Boris Petukhov, Argo Computing Services Pty. Ltd., Melbourne, Australia
AI could even bridge communication gaps to improve the flow of information, says Adrian Müller, PMP, a professor in the department of computer sciences and microsystem technology at the University of Applied Sciences Kaiserslautern, Zweibrücken, Germany. For projects that have dozens of people scattered across multiple time zones, AI could help analyze communication patterns to determine which methods—such as email or online chats—most quickly allow team members to access information.
“In large and distributed teams, it's not feasible to collect the global picture,” Mr. Müller says. An effective AI-based analysis algorithm will be able to see trends over time, he says. For example, it could detect changes in the frustration level that team members have with particular problems, or the frequency with which certain types of problems emerge in a project, or the amount of time team members spend discussing a particular issue. “The project manager defines his or her information needs, and the data mining algorithm computes the variables,” he says.
“PROJECT MANAGERS WON‘T BE ABLE TO MAKE FULL USE OF EVEN A FRACTION OF THE REAL WEALTH THIS DATA OFFERS, BUT AI AND MACHINE LEARNING ARE VERY GOOD AT THIS.”
Although no AI technology will eliminate project manager positions in the short term, Mr. Stogner believes some junior project management positions could one day be replaced by AI. “New AI tools that interact with people or plug into project management information such as time sheets and activities done can identify trends taking place before the next team meeting,” he says. “So as in most industries today, AI is being developed—and even starting to be implemented—that can work faster, see more detail and otherwise reduce the need for junior project staff.”
Still, project professionals and organizations should embrace the possibilities of AI rather than view them as a threat—and begin to prepare for change now. Project managers can make themselves essential to the AI transition by learning the ABCs of AI. Start by understanding how it can crunch past data and predict the future, and how it can (and cannot) outperform humans. This knowledge can be gained through some basic training on AI relative to data analysis, predictive analysis and machine learning, Mr. Petukhov says. “Apart from that, additional courses on basic topics—like data science for business decision—can really improve project managers’ ability to apply AI to their work.”
More broadly, project managers must ramp up strategic and leadership skills so they can more quickly realize what benefits AI might bring to their industry or organization, says Mr. Petukhov.
“They should develop a clear view on what AI should be implemented by their organizations, to make sure those benefits can be realized in the most effective way possible,” he says.
Being the first to embrace AI can help make project managers indispensable to the organization when teams begin to incorporate it. Early adopters also can help build AI buy-in at the executive level by providing some preliminary results that show benefits, he says. Project managers can try some generic and primitive data analytics and visualization tools that assimilate past project data. These baby steps can support key project manager functions, such as cost and schedule estimating. “This will help project managers show some results and draw executive support,” Mr. Petukhov says.
But AI isn't a panacea: Mature project management practices set the stage for its benefits. For instance, if a project team doesn't understand how scheduling works, AI won't add value, he says. “AI is not going to replace project managers’ knowledge of resources, needs and constraints. But it will process information quickly and in large quantities.”
As AI technologies mature, project managers must evolve along with them to retain their value, Mr. Stogner says. “Be the project manager who embraces new tools to make the job easier and more efficient,” he says. “You have to change— or the world will change without you.” PM
NEW WAYS OF HIRING
Artificial intelligence (AI) also offers the potential to help organizations create more diverse project teams by eliminating human bias during the hiring process. Here's how two human resource departments are giving AI a try:
CLOSING THE GENDER GAP
Last year McKinsey & Co. tested algorithms that analyzed more than 10,000 résumés and predicted which candidates the firm would accept. The AI-assisted results closely matched the candidates the firm actually chose, but the software selected a slightly higher percentage of female candidates—indicating that some qualified women were overlooked in real life.
LEG UP FOR VETERANS
Hilton Worldwide is using AI to prevent an obstacle that veterans typically face: translating their military service experience into the language commonly found in the CVs or résumés of civilian candidates. (See “Ready for a New Mission,” page 54.) As part of the organization's program to hire 10,000 military veterans by 2018, Hilton uses an AI-assisted service that records online applicants’ video responses to interview questions and analyzes their responses. All candidates answer the same questions in the same way—leveling the playing field for all candidates.
“BE THE PROJECT MANAGER WHO EMBRACES NEW TOOLS. … YOU HAVE TO CHANGE—OR THE WORLD WILL CHANGE WITHOUT YOU.”
—Lee Stogner, PMP
JANUARY 2017 PM NETWORK
PM NETWORK JANUARY 2017 WWW.PMI.ORG