Project Managers Can Leverage the Power of Artificial Intelligence

The future of work is about integrating technology—not being replaced by it

April 5, 2019 | Helen S. Cooke

project manager AIThese days, there are many dire predictions about artificial intelligence replacing human workers. News specials and magazine articles speculate that no occupation is immune, or claim that whole fields of work, such as teaching or project management, might be replaced by artificial intelligence, or AI.

These predictions fail to account for the many components of these jobs that AI simply can’t replace. Teachers don’t only convey information to students. They also teach students how to use their capabilities and take responsibility for the quality of their work. Project managers don’t merely list and sequence tasks and track if those tasks were completed on-time and on-budget. They also design the work flow of a project, interpret and incorporate the goals of executives and managers in the delivery of project outcomes, and select and deploy talent and expertise in ways that are compatible with the company’s culture and processes. These are soft skills that require creativity and versatility, and that can’t be replaced by AI.  The key to effectively using artificial intelligence is knowing how to use it.

Some rote jobs such as tracking budgets and resources have already been automated for many years. Still more will be shaped by automation and sophisticated technologies in the future. But creative analysis, integration of goals and objectives at every level, and refinement of outcomes will continue to need the involvement of the human brain to be really effective. The many benefits of a project manager’s creative, integrative work will continue to shape our society and our culture, sometimes invisibly and behind the scenes.  It is the creative work of the project manager that makes this occupation fundamental to business success.

Some jobs will incorporate technology in innocuous ways. For instance, IBM’s Watson demonstrated that AI can conduct an automated search of published legal cases faster than a legal assistant can do it. An automated search of published literature can quickly locate articles or research to back up analysis of a legal case or a doctor’s diagnosis. For years we have had project management scheduling software that can sequence tasks in a project plan by various criteria, propose an initial estimate of time, work effort, and duration, and even cite prototypes of previous projects with similar characteristics. We already have access to tools that convert handwritten notes or verbal summaries into text. But it is important that we recognize the value of these searches in developing the technical knowledge of the junior professional, not just the value of “getting the answer” to perform our own work.

The people responsible for these more routine tasks—legal assistants, interns, analysts, and administrative staff—may find that these tools assist their work in valuable ways, shortening some tasks and replacing others. The rote elements of these tasks are seldom missed once they’re replaced by automation. Work time is freed up to carry out more important or more complex tasks.

But relying on artificial intelligence can short-change the maturation of the professional. Researching the topic, prioritizing the references, linking the key concepts and building a case for using one source versus another in an argument matures the judgment of the junior professional in the process. This research and decision-making requires looking at the key concepts of the argument from several points of view, strengthening the argument and making an executive summary more persuasive.

One example that comes to mind where automation disrupts a whole profession involves the professional development of airline pilots. As online email gradually replaced “snail mail,” an unexpected consequence was that the primary source of non-military pilot training was cut out. Pilots used to fly mail from one city to another, and many of them became commercial airline pilots, having first gained their experience by delivering mail. Today, the shortage of experienced pilots has led to the hiring of computer-trained flying technicians who become commercial pilots before they have earned full competence in managing a plane in flight. More than one airline accident has taken lives because the computer failed and the pilots couldn’t take over the airplane and fly it without the computer.

This example reminds us of the importance of preserving opportunities for professional development when learning how to work with new technologies. Professionals are independent conceptual workers who develop themselves into self-propelled and self-motivated units of the work force. A professional worker grows more effective by pushing through the early stages of an occupation, identifying the subtle variations in work examples during the process, analyzing what makes sense and what doesn’t—and why. A professional learns the “lay of the land” across many cases or projects, often working alongside a more experienced professional and eventually developing a particular specialty that highlights his or her own specific talents and passions. The professional learns by mastering and expanding upon current knowledge, building skills, and maturing by means of a mistake or two along the way. Ethics, values, and accepted practice all shape the professional as he or she moves into the occupation or field of work.

Relying too much on artificial intelligence instead of the human brain stymies the maturation of the professional. A medical doctor saves time and effort by tapping into artificial intelligence when working on a challenging patient’s case, but there are benefits to focusing on a diagnosis and treatment plan first, and consulting AI afterwards as a check system. By letting the developmental process disappear into a piece of artificial intelligence, professionals risk being nudged into the role of technological assistant or tool-manipulator. There are all sorts of software programs and AI solutions that serve as a personal assistant, cheat sheet, or Cliff’s Notes. But if you overuse these options, the question remains: who are you cheating?

Society still needs adaptive, innovative professionals who can place the focused event of the moment into a business, health, or informational context, who can make reasoned choices to move forward within that context, and who can realign an approach to an entirely new context and perspective. This process of growing as a professional reminds me of the philosophy of the Phi Beta Kappa society, which is that broad perspectives and adaptive analytical and reasoning skills result in more successful workers, even in technology fields. Absorbing knowledge is not as important as developing intellectual dexterity and prowess.

The challenge of today’s workforce is not to know more, or to demonstrate control over more information, but to make sense of the huge bank of accessible information that exists today. What is the process by which an individual can move into a new situation, identify what is needed, deploy the capabilities to deliver results, and satisfy the need that justified all the time and effort? That is the central challenge of the project manager, and other creative professions that rely on integrative skills and judgment of the individual to be successful.

In the context of project management, it’s important to continuously develop creative thinking skills. Think about the huge difference between a supervisor and a manager. A supervisor is good at making people and processes comply with what someone else has already determined is correct. A manager, on the other hand, deduces what actions are possible, assesses what is expected and needed, specifies necessary skills and abilities to tackle the problem, shapes the directions and interactions of the many elements of the work, and puts controls in place to test and adjust the work so it narrows into the delivery range with quality and appropriate performance in place. A manager negotiates differences between the plan and its reality with sponsors and participants and customers. A manager will re-plan and cycle through a process of assessment and realignment as a project’s work nears completion. These tasks require creative thinking and dexterous integration, skills that are not in the territory of artificial intelligence. They are the territory of human intelligence.

Our society is beginning to discover how to leverage AI to support human intelligence. Whose task is it to prepare us to use AI appropriately? We need to ensure we don’t bury ourselves in isolated enclaves of sophisticated technology while the fabric of society frays around the edges.

You might be one of the people who can step into the breach. Why not push this process forward by analyzing how AI interacts with your own work? Think about how to explore the challenges and opportunities artificial intelligence presents in your own sphere of influence. As you develop your professional competence in this area, you might become one of the experts who will help us all move forward wisely into a future of work that integrates smart human jobs with artificial intelligence.

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  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.