The project management profession, like many others, faces an emergent threat from artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies. Project managers are likely to experience a major upheaval during the 2020s.
Gartner has predicted that by 2030, upwards to 80% of project management work will be automated by artificial intelligence (AI). Although 80% is arguably a bit extreme, I expect that it will be at least 50% and very likely more. For project managers, an important question to ask is how will AI potentially impact their profession. This article briefly explores why AI has become an emergent threat to project managers, amongst many other professionals, and summarizes what I see to be the direct and indirect threats posed by AI.
How We Got Here
External to your organization, AI-based systems have been in development for years and have experienced successes in the marketplace. Interestingly, AI technology has been embedded in places where we may not have always been aware of it— displaying generated backgrounds in remote meeting software, personal assistant devices such as Alexa, self-driving vehicles, autonomous robots, and many more applications. Then, in 2022, we saw publicly available generative AI around image, text, and music creation. Showing that the work of creatives can be augmented by AI is a watershed moment for industry in that it shows that no profession is immune from external change.
Internally, within your organization, there has likely been growing automation. This may include comprehensive event logging, often to the level of small work transactions, used for increasing real-time monitoring. This in turn enables sophisticated metrics reporting via data warehousing (DW) and business intelligence (BI) technologies such as automated dashboards. Many organizations have adopted time tracking systems to enable better cost accounting. All of these technologies increase the data footprint of your organization, data that can be used to train AI solutions. It is very likely that your organization has developed, is developing, or is at least exploring AI systems now. You may even be involved with such initiatives.
The point is that we’re seeing a “perfect storm” of technological change. Your organization has become increasingly sophisticated in its approach to IT infrastructure and vendors are offering viable AI platforms. This will only become more so over time.
Direct Threats to Project Managers Posed by AI
AI-based technology is being applied to automate many aspects of project management work. Each of these changes are small and very useful improvements, perhaps whittling away 2-5% of the daily work of a PM. Separately each of them are not much of a threat. Taken together and implemented in a relatively short period of time, say over the next few years, they pose a significant challenge. These direct threats include, but are not limited to:
- Planning assistance. AI-based products can help with fundamental aspects of project planning including estimation, scheduling, task identification, and associating people to tasks.
- Team building assistance. People management systems are applying AI-based technologies. It is reasonable to expect to apply this functionality to identify potential people, and potential roles, for your teams.
- Augmented metrics reporting. A seldom recognized issue with automated dashboards, and metrics reporting in general, is whether people understand the implications of what the metrics reveal (see Are Your Decision Makers Capable of Making Data-Driven Decisions?). This is particularly challenging given the unique combination of metrics gathered by individual teams. AI systems to explain the metrics, and to highlight in real time potential issues requiring human intervention, would be valuable. This isn’t restricted to project management metrics, for example EVM measures, but also project-specific measures around quality, sales, and so on.
- Addressing risk. AI solutions can be used for risk identification and intelligent monitoring, and even proactive risk mitigation.
- Writing status reports. Project managers are using generative AI systems such as ChatGPT to help them write the text for their status reports. This potentially includes updating estimated costs and schedules, identifying dependency-based risks, and estimating potential future value via predictive analytics.
- Identification of issues requiring management attention. Via intelligent monitoring, AI-based systems can potentially identify fraud, potential staffing issues (such as impending resignations), and interpersonal issues within and across teams.
- Contract writing and interpretation. The application of AI, and technology in general, in the legal space has been going on for years now. Originally focused on enabling lawyers, I’m now seeing people use generative AI to write the draft text for common business documents such as statements of work (SoWs) and memos of understanding (MoUs).
There is nothing in the list above that you cannot augment using AI in some way today. The issue isn’t if these things will happen, it’s a matter of when they become mainstream.
Indirect Threats to Project Managers Posed by AI
I also expect that project management work will be reduced due to new human behaviours enabled by intelligent assistance. Intelligent assistance is the act of software providing contextualized advice to its human users. A rudimentary example of such a system was Microsoft’s Clippy, a product that provided advice for using Microsoft Office. While Clippy was generally seen as an annoyance, the idea of the product was enticing. We are now seeing people asking systems such as ChatGPT for advice, and it is fairly decent in practice. Once that platform moves from GPT3 to GPT4, the quality of the advice should prove to be very good in most cases. This has significant implications for PMs:
- Team members will ask AIs for information or for advice. Why wait to talk with your PM when you can instantly chat with the AI? More importantly, you will very likely get a better answer due to the broader range of information being leveraged by the AI. Furthermore, why risk having the PM get the wrong idea about what is going on based on the questions you’re asking? While many issues are best dealt with between people, many more can be dealt with via automation. This will reduce the effort devoted by PMs to such interactions.
- Stakeholders will ask AIs for information or for advice. Similarly, why would project stakeholders go to the PM when they can get an immediate answer from the AI? Once again, less effort will be devoted by PMs to this type of work.
- Project managers will ask AIs for information or for advice. Once trained on the “PM body of knowledge,” and related information, AIs will become a key resource for PMs. This will reduce the knowledge requirements for PMs, and in the long term may even reduce the cachet of being a PM.
The implication is that the people-oriented work that many existing PMs hope to hang their hats is going to be reduced by AI. This is particularly true of any work based on the PM being a bridge between disparate groups. So, not only will much of the paperwork of project management be automated away, there is the clear opportunity to also reduce the people-oriented activities as well.
Some Threats Are Opportunities in Disguise
For individuals, many of these changes free up existing project managers from busy work. This is great for them because it puts them in a position to focus on adding value. This new focus may also in turn lead to working in a more strategic rather than tactical manner, enabling project managers to move into positions of influence within their organizations.
Some Threats Really Are Threats
Don’t let the feel-good rhetoric of “threats are just opportunities in disguise” fool you. For organizations, many of these changes will mitigate the costs and risks injected by project management ways of working (WoW) and ways of thinking (WoT). Greater levels of automation enable organizations to improve the flow of work, often by removing the project manager “middle man.”
When a large percentage of the work is automated away, that tells you there will be less need for project managers. Period. If your career goal is to be a PM, that implies there will be a lot of competitions for a dwindling number of jobs. My hope is that as the need for project managers diminishes, organizations choose to invest in their people and help them move into better positions.
Good luck out there.