Turning to Computers for Project Management?

Recently, companies such as General Electric and Shell have started to use algorithms for many managerial tasks. Uber has been one of the main pioneers of using algorithms for handing out tasks to their self-employed workforce. Now, this trend is continuing to spread to other companies, such as GE and Shell. In the following graph, it shows there has been a constant increase in the growth of software sales specializing in helping to manage people.

As of right now, these software programs are handling simpler managerial tasks, such as scheduling and overseeing strategic projects. However, there is plenty of room for this technology to grow and replace some of the jobs typically done by humans in relation to project management. Consider the various steps of project management and how it could relate to a computer algorithm.

 

First, defining a problem will largely be a human task, unless it is a problem present in raw data alone that a computer program would be able to identify. From there, it will normally take a human touch to accurately determine the scope and time frame of the project. However, Shell and GE are already using programs that are able to identify employees that would work well in a certain role, which is a job typically left to project managers.

 

Not only could this approach save time and money, but computers may be better suited for these jobs. In the Wall Street Journal article Meet Your New Boss: An Algorithm, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London, has criticisms of managers in certain roles. He says, “What managers do mostly is identify potential, build teams, assign tasks, measure performance and provide feedback. Generally speaking, humans aren’t very good at these tasks.” Of course, there are flaws with AI technology, especially as it relates to assigning employees to tasks they have never faced before, but AI could do a manager’s job better in certain cases. To read more, the following is a link to the previously mentioned article.

 

There are still aspects of project management that need a human, but there is always the opportunity for new technology to assist project management better than ever before. In my opinion, project management can benefit massively from increased technological improvement in “megaprojects”, or projects with budgets over $1 billion. An article from MIT Sloan, titled Five Rules for Managing Large, Complex Projects, explains that some estimates suggest 90% of megaprojects end up over budget. Unfortunately, this article is only available through a subscription, but it does explain the complexity of megaprojects before a subscription is needed to read further. Normally, increases in the use of technology can reduce overall costs, which means megaprojects could save substantial amounts of money through small changes.

 

In the end, technology will play an increasing role in the professional world and it could lead to decreased human interaction as it relates to managing projects. As a final thought, Sue Siegel, GE’s chief innovation officer, had some interesting thoughts on the increasing presence of technology in management. Same Schechner writes in Meet Your New Boss: An Algorithm, “Sue Siegel said she wouldn’t rule out one day working for a machine. ‘If the robot has personality and a sense of humor and can understand the human condition,” she said, “hey, who knows?’”

 

For additional reading, I consulted the following three articles (two of which were already referenced directly in the post):

 

https://www.wsj.com/articles/meet-your-new-boss-an-algorithm-1512910800

https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/five-rules-for-managing-large-complex-projects/

https://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2017/12/11/the-morning-download-big-companies-give-algorithms-chance-to-manage-people/

 

10 thoughts on “Turning to Computers for Project Management?

  • February 8, 2018 at 8:28 am
    Permalink

    Brian,

    As artificial intelligence and automation rapidly advance, one of the most important—and most uncertain—questions we are left to answer is what the future of work will look like. Your piece does an excellent job of providing an overview of what he future of work could look like for project managers and the employees that work with them.

    As you mentioned, many of the skills that great project managers possess are skills that machines and algorithms do not do particularly well. Furthermore, by their definition, projects are a unique endeavor, and in unique and novel situations the critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills that humans excel at are unlikely to be replaced by machines.

    As we try to answer the question of what work, and for the purposes of this post, what project management will look like in the next thirty years, it seems unlikely that machines will replace humans. However, project management strikes me as a realm in which managers will work alongside automation and artificial intelligence to achieve superior results. In the WSJ journal article, “Meet Your New Boss, An Algorithm,” the journalist provides a relevant anecdote from Shell. Shell was working on a project to evaluate their digital business model in the car maintenance sector, and required expertise from Shell staffers. With 93,000 employees scattered around the globe, finding employees with the background and experience to provide this expertise would have be a daunting challenge without automation. However, project leaders were able to leverage an algorithm that “scanned for available Shell staffers with the right expertise—and assigned the job with a click.” The superior data searching capabilities of machines complimented the superior “soft” skills of the project leaders to save time and (hopefully) deliver superior analysis and insight.

    Word Count: 294

  • February 7, 2018 at 10:29 pm
    Permalink

    Brian,

    This is a really interesting post. With the advancement of technology, companies are able to use algorithms to make decisions that normally a manager or leader would make. As you stated, the software programs out today are handling simpler managerial tasks, such as scheduling and overseeing strategic projects. But I think that’s as far programs will go in terms in managing projects. Even as technology advances, these programs will be relegated to simple managerial tasks and nothing more. There are some things that only a human can understand such as human emotion or passion for a job. Maybe in the far future will technology be able to understand this. I am a firm believer in that in any organization needs a competent leader if the organization would like to see success. Whether the type of leadership is individual or shared does not matter, there must be some form of leadership. As I have learned in Organizational Behavior, different types of leadership work best in different situations and different industries. So maybe there will be industries where these programs would help make a company run more efficiently. But the military is one area where I can never see this type of “programmed leadership” being successful. There are decisions that need to be made by a human. This is the part of the C-suite executives are paid so well. They get paid a lot to make decisions that can build or break down their company. When a c-suite executive makes a bad decision, the fault lies entirely on him or her. When things are successful, the “wealth” and recognition must be shared amongst everyone.

  • February 7, 2018 at 10:04 pm
    Permalink

    Brian, I agree with the sentiment of your post that the influences of automation and Artificial Intelligence are affecting all different types of jobs in businesses around the world, including project management. There is no stopping these waves of automation that will continue to affect businesses and the different functions within them, and fighting against this advantageous technology will only put one’s company at a disadvantage. Therefore, the only option for businesses that want to experience success in the future is to embrace the new technology and attempt to integrate it into their business processes. This is easier said than done, because as you mentioned in your post, a lot of people’s livelihoods will be stripped from them because of this “rise of the machines.” Specifically for project management, the main focus of your post, there is a lot of contention on the future role of AI. Some contest that humans perform the tasks of a project manager with less accuracy and efficiency than a robot could perform them, while others argue that humans possess the necessary creativity and reasoning abilities to perform a job that AI simply cannot offer.

    https://www.atlassian.com/blog/software-teams/3-ways-ai-will-change-project-management-better

    This article goes into far greater depth of the larger Artificial Intelligence movement as a whole, as well as how AI is currently applied to project management and how it will function in the future. According to this blog post, there is the current generation of AI that are classified as narrow project assistants, an up-and-coming generation of AI with an expanded project understanding, and a distant future AI that will understand the entire process well enough to fill in the data gaps. After reading this article, I have realized that while AI has some capacity to assist in project management today, it still has a long way to go.

    • February 8, 2018 at 8:34 am
      Permalink

      Jake,

      You hit the nail on the head in terms of the timeline that we are realistically looking at before artificial intelligence can truly understand a project well enough to even take over certain aspects of the process. I like the classification of “project assistant” for the next wave of AI—I think it reflects the impact and role that artificial intelligence will have on the project management process while underscoring its significant shortcomings compared to human project managers. It will be interesting to see how these estimates hold up as we move forward, and if AI will be able to evolve past project management roles that only concern data and project support.

  • February 7, 2018 at 9:57 pm
    Permalink

    Brian,

    Your post highlights the common belief that technology is a powerful thing. It also shows that companies will use whatever means available to lower the costs of operations. The graph shows how software sales for software specializing in managing people have increased over the past five years. I suspect those sales to continue to increase as more companies begin to understand the potential in using a computer for project management. However, as you mentioned in your post problems could result in a computer replacing a complex managerial job. It may appear that computer software can be programmed with everything needed to in order to complete complex managerial tasks. However, a computer is not a person. I do not believe a project manager can be completely replaced by a computer. A computer maybe able to complete tasks that a project manager is responsible for however, there are some tasks of a project manager that need to be completed by a person. A computer maybe able to sort through all of the prospects for an administrative staff. However, a computer is not able to determine how the members and the personality of the administrative staff will interact with each other and the other members of the project. The computer cannot factor in emotions Lastly, I can see how turning to computer for project management can be successful in some aspects of project management such as planning and monitoring risk since they are primarily data oriented. However, some aspects of project management still need human qualities and interaction to be successful. Here is an article (http://time.com/4960778/computers-smarter-than-humans/) that shows how humans are still smarter than computer in some aspects such that we perform. Certain tasks, making decisions, and solving problems require using our common sense. I believe common sense cannot be programmed into computer software.

  • February 7, 2018 at 7:41 pm
    Permalink

    Brian,

    I really find this post interesting. I understand that technology will continue to be implemented into processes so that things will be simpler and more efficient. I also understand project managers tend to use technology to assist them in planning and organizing. However, I did not realize that some companies, such as Uber, almost use it to its full capacity in order to organize, direct, and hand out tasks in the most efficient way possible. Obviously, I knew that Uber is extremely dominated with technologically, but the thought that they were almost completely automated never really occurred to me. With Uber’s success, I can definitely see more companies implementing a much more automated project management system like Shell and GE already have. This move will lead to decreased labor costs, increased efficiency, and increased accuracy in assigning tasks to employees. However, an article that I was reading stressed the importance of communication within project management. The article stated that poor communication led to 1/3 of project failures. Because of this, it is very important to have an involved project management staff that still communicates and encourages their fellow employees. Automation may help accuracy and efficiency, but the clarity of the project comes from the human interaction between project managers and the employees.

    References
    http://www.coreworx.com/pmi-study-reveals-poor-communication-leads-to-project-failure-one-third-of-the-time/

  • February 7, 2018 at 7:40 pm
    Permalink

    When looking at the steps of project management, it is very feasible to see a robot or AI taking over those areas. In my opinion, it looks like the most likely step of project management to turn over to a non-human source would be the planning phase. Now working with current technologies and AI capability there will still be the need for human input. But there are many algorithms already out there working for companies, just as you said Brian. These algorithms can help plan the project and these “megaprojects” which in turn will allow the companies to keep them on time and on budget. This will also let them know the critical path and slack time so that the company can easily relay this information to their workers. Monitoring goes hand in hand with planning, so I imagine that an algorithm can handle this just as well. It could notify managers the most favorable choice when a project has to be expedited, as well as note key risks that could appear in the planning that occurred prior. Humans that do these jobs now are good at what they do, but they are prone to changing their minds. People have second thoughts about what the right choice is, and other factors begin to sway their judgement. In some cases this might be for the best, but in other cases it causes a mistake that may end up being a large problem. I’m not sure which would be better, the cold hearted computer that sticks to its algorithm and makes decisions based on the same criteria every time, or the free thinking human that can take outside factors into consideration that a machine may not be able to account for. It’s a tough choice for companies to make, as it can affect how their workers and how outsiders view their company. The choice and the risk falls on the company, as always.

    • February 7, 2018 at 8:09 pm
      Permalink

      Layne,

      You bring up a really interesting point about the humans having the ability to bring in outside factors. In my Cognitive Psychology class, my professor posed the question: it is possible to have a robot that is indistinguishable from a human? After a lot of discussion we came to the conclusion that one main reason for this not to be possible is that you cannot program the intuition and reasoning that a human has. These gut instincts are something that makes us human and ultimately successful in business. While there the innovation in programing and algorithms is great and can make a huge impact in the efficiency of a business, ultimately I believe that sometimes a human is needed to understand the outside factors that a computer algorithm cannot.

  • February 7, 2018 at 3:55 pm
    Permalink

    Brian, you are absolutely right. Technology and AI has already begun to expand into the project management arena of operations, and we can see this clearly through companies like Uber. Furthering this thought, the question looming on everyone’s mind remains the same: how far can we push technology to control and manage projects without completely discontinuing the need for human touch? As a leadership major, one of the key concepts we have learned in class involves the idea of coordination, or in business terms, project management. Throughout human evolution, groups who coordinated well received more resources. As a result, these groups were able to produce more descendants who also possessed the genetic ability to successfully coordinate and manage projects and groups. Essentially, the ability to effectively coordinate and manage groups and tasks has led to the overall success of humanity. If we eventually let technology coordinate and manage all of our projects for us, will we then lose our ability as humans to plan and coordinate between ourselves? If so, what would this mean for our species? I definitely don’t expect anyone to have an answer to these questions, but I think it’s interesting and a bit scary to think about. I think Uber is an incredibly convenient and useful service, but at what point will all aspects of life and business be assigned and organized for us by technology? When it happens, or if it happens, the human race might never be the same.

    • February 7, 2018 at 6:34 pm
      Permalink

      Nicholas,
      I think your insight regarding this topic and the connection to your leadership studies is very interesting. I too am hesitant to fully rely on technology to completely run project management. Human involvement and creativity is what has made project management what it is today. If we were to leave this responsibility solely to technology I am concerned that the definition of group coordination and project management would completely shift. Also, your discussion regarding the implications this may have on the human race as a whole is very compelling. It made me wonder if we let technology manage projects and groups for us, then would we ultimately not find the need for human collaboration and group work at all? Without this, how would society expand and grow?

Comments are closed.

css.php