Will Robots Replace Project Managers

robotArtificial Intelligence (AI) is a hot topic today with major players such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft all rushing for a piece of the market pie. Along with this technology trend growing in strength there is a widening discussion about the impact of robots on society and in particular on jobs. A wide range of professions have been mentioned as potentially being threatened by AI, from manual workers to teachers, doctors, and scientists. Management professions have not been spared either, nor is project management. I am a strong believer in AI, however being also a project manager I can’t help asking myself: how realistic is it that we might one day see our vocation being taken over by robots?

Project management is a complex profession, so multifaceted and so widely misunderstood. The formal methodologies and quite often project managers themselves lean heavily against the technical aspects of the profession that involve processes, methods and tools. These “hard” aspects are so tempting because they are easy to describe, formalise, and they help build scientific-like confidence. However, real project management success often lies beyond the technical skills, in the soft, blurry and creative aspects of the profession that are so intangible. The more challenging and innovative the project, the more the rigid models become a burden. And AI is not necessarily known for creativity, cognitive ability and soft skills.

Project management can’t be formalised as an algorithm

A really skilled project manager who is capable of delivering any project acts more like a conductor directing an orchestra and not like a bureaucrat filling forms and crunching numbers. There is no more a winning formula for completing projects than there is for directing an orchestra. Let’s not confuse project management with train service scheduling which I am sure can benefit greatly from more computing power.

Project information is patchy, often flawed and it takes a human to make sense of it

This is another misconception in projects – that they operate based on reliable hard data. With more than 16 years in software project management I am yet to see a system that holds complete, up to date and 100% reliable project data. First, the way we record even basic information such as task completion is not and cannot be absolute but is prone to interpretation. Second, keeping a whole lot of project data up to date at all times takes diligence and significant effort. As a result of these and other factors project data is patchy and usually not that up to date. This is especially true in fast moving, innovative projects and organisations. Due to the gap between data and reality AI won’t work reliably even in areas where it is supposed to do well, for instance assignment of resources.

There are way too many human aspects to project management

Like I said in another post of mine – Mistakes that Technical People Should Avoid – a project manager’s job is to achieve success through people. And this is actually the single biggest challenge in a project. It is very difficult for humans to lead people effectively, for a robot that would be impossible. As a side note – don’t be confused by the resemblance of many managers in IT to robots, that just proves the point.

Besides there are a myriad of other soft aspects in project management that can hardly be attributed to a machine, such as emotional intelligence, relationship building, communication, negotiation and motivation.

Robots can’t replace project managers while there are human team members, but they could one day be project assistants helping with some tedious, routine activities and tasks that require attention and a lot of calculations. In order to do that, robots should be able to understand verbal, digital and analog information in the same way that humans do and make sense of and correct contradictory data. The best role for robots is to help people be more human so that we can focus on the tasks that only we can do.





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