How to survive AI and automation

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About half of all the activities people are paid to do today could be automated right now, simply by adapting already existing technologies. And that, according to Dr Michael Chui of the McKinsey Global Institute, will have a significant impact on the entire realm of project management.

"As some of the pure skills involved in project management increasingly will be done by the machines, project managers will have to adapt," he said.

Dr Chui was speaking to Stephen W Maye in a Projectified with PMI podcast about research undertaken by McKinsey on the impact that artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will have on the global workforce.

He pointed out that there had been rapid advances in AI and robotics such as, for example, self-driving cars which, until very recently, people in the know thought would be years away. There had also been massive strides made in the cognitive realm with, for example, machines able to read lips better than deaf people do.

However, McKinsey's research found that despite the fact that it would be technically possible to immediately automate 50% of all workforce tasks - as opposed to workforce jobs - this level of automation would probably not occur before 2055.

Nevertheless, Dr Chui said there were significant potential implications of the adoption of these technologies for people in the project management space.

"It will change the activities that project managers do in terms of the way they execute their job, and then it will change the way that the projects that they manage will get done," he said.

In terms of the way that projects get done, McKinsey found that there were three broad categories of activities with the highest susceptibility to technical automation. These were:

1. Physical activities in predictable environments such as an assembly line in a factory.
2. Collecting information.
3. Processing information.

Dr Chui believed that the latter two will have a massive impact on project managers who will find they'll need to manage not only the people but the machines that do these things.

In addition, the mix of work within projects is going to change with more of the things that are currently harder to automate, such as exhibiting creativity and emotional intelligence, as well as leading, managing and developing other people, demanding more of the project manager's focus. Far less time will be spent on collecting and processing information.

In order to prepare for this increasingly automated world, project management professionals "need to be able to understand these technologies, understand the art of the possible, and try to stay at least abreast, if not ahead, of what these technologies can do, because they can both affect and improve the work that any professional does, as well as the projects that they're trying to manage," Dr Chui said.

In addition, the effective use of data and analytics is changing the game. Project managers will have to become more familiar with statistics, experimental design and similar disciplines so as to be able to apply numerical quantitative statistical analyses to decision-making.

"Finally, the thing that will be most valuable and engaging is how project managers motivate people, how they lead a group and get people to do the things that need to be done," he concluded.

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