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How AI will change project management

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Is it possible that the project management profession - which dates back thousands of years - could be heading for extinction by modern technology like artificial intelligence?

The best response to this question is a truly South African one: Ja-well-no-maybe ... sort of, according to a white paper "How Artificial Intelligence will change Project Management" published recently by Ciklum, a European-based global technology and software engineering firm.

Ciklum points out that artificial intelligence (AI) is starting to infiltrate all kinds of undertakings and routine operations.

Consulting firm McKinsey estimated that up to US$40 billion was invested globally in AI across all sectors in 2016 - including project management.

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) survey of project managers found that 54% of a project manager's time is taken up with administrative duties, such as planning work schedules, overseeing deliveries and setting project budgets. All these tasks could be handled easily by AI which has already proven more than competent at speeding up repetitive admin tasks. For example, Monte Carlo simulation is able to perform risk analysis through mathematical techniques, while Web sites like Kono.ai are able to manage schedules for project managers.

Ciklum predicts that there will soon be smart software that can automatically route shipments to their correct locations, create schedules for thousands of employees based on their availability and even alert project managers when spending milestones are met.

Interestingly, the HBR survey also found that 86% of project managers would welcome support from AI for these routine, administrative activities.

According to Ciklum, routine administrative tasks constitute just one of the three pillars that support effective project management: technical project management. The other pillars are leadership and business acumen.

While AI would have most impact on technical project management - at least for the foreseeable future - it would also feature in the other two.

Business acumen includes the ability to not only understand the intricacies of the project itself, but also how the project fits into the larger view of the company. AI already has the ability to handle some of this: for example, the tool Narratives for Tableau is a free extension, available for Google Chrome browsers that has the ability to see dynamic narratives based on chart data and analytics. Narratives thus can determine how projects will impact the overall business itself.

However, business acumen also involves judgment calls. "While AI has the ability to help determine odds or show the best projected course of action, ultimately major decisions are currently, and even into the near future will continue to be, made by people," Ciklum says.

Finally, there's the leadership pillar which involves human behaviour and emotion including team building and motivation. Ciklum believes AI is simply not programmed to deal with this aspect of project management.

So while the days of 'paint-by-numbers' project managers, whose focus is almost exclusively on technical project management tasks may be numbered, project managers who hone their business acumen and leadership skills will be set to make an even greater contribution to their organisations thanks to AI.

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