As artificial intelligence continues to evolve and permeate the project world, it’s a reasonable to ask the question whether AI will replace the project professionals?

Artificial intelligence is here and is shaping up to impact a considerable portion of our personal and business lives. It is having significant impacts in many industries in how we now engage with both technology, processes, data and with each other.

While progress is touted as its main benefit, there are some concerns about how it is evolving. Many technologists and futurists tout the benefits of AI, however there are many who warn about the potential biases and risks in its application.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is a proponent of AI, pointing to its potential to unlock significant positive change such as identifying and curing disease, safer vehicles, or keeping communities safe. Tesla CEO Elon Musk, on the other hand points to the risk of as yet unknown – or unintentional – ethical, legal and social implications resulting from a lack of frameworks,  recently calling AI “… far more dangerous than nukes.”

Both of these views do appear to agree on one thing: AI is going to drive change. It already is doing so in many industries around the world such as media, healthcare, manufacturing, and others.

So it’s undeniable that AI will have an impact on project delivery. But should we be fearful of this change? While many of us have fond childhood memories of Robot B9 warning Will Robinson of pending danger, the evolution of AI is shaping up in an interesting way. Technologists driving AI have mixed views on its unintended consequences; countries such as the UK recognise they can’t invest enough in its evolution so are looking at the ethical challenges; and in many ways, we’ve been here before.

As with other industry disruption, does the rise in AI equate to the replacement of people in delivering change? Will projects still need to have human intervention to deliver the change and what will the impact be on project delivery as a whole?

The Future of AI

As with any rapidly evolving, technology driven change, it’s the unknown consequences that foster fear or concern. Price Waterhouse Coopers recently released research (PDF) that suggests that by 2030, AI will lead to an increase in global GDP of about 14%, the equivalent of about $15.7 trillion. That is greater than the current combined GDP of the world’s two biggest economies, China and India, and it posits AI as the single biggest commercial opportunity in the world.

China is likely to experience the biggest gains (26% GDP increase), followed by North America (14% GDP increase) and its impacts are likely to be seen in healthcare, retail, and financial services.

Forrester also points to a similar finding in its report, The Year of Reckoning. Its view is that AI’s impact on productivity could be so vast and transformative that businesses who fail to adopt and adapt will likely be undercut by competitors and lose significant market share.

And what of the skill shifts? McKinsey points to the introduction of new technologies to the work place as the most significant shift since at least the Industrial Revolution and that as automation and AI are increasingly adopted, this will accelerate even faster.

Change will come and we need to adapt

As with any major change that impacts how we work, there will be a rebalancing of skills needed in the workplace. The demand for some skills, such as technological, social, and emotional skills will rise, while the demand for more traditional skills such as physical or manual labour will fall.

These are the types of changes that will require workers everywhere to deepen their existing skillsets or acquire new skills that enable them to participate in the workforce.

And that is where the impact on projects is most likely to be felt: Organisations will need to re-think how work is organised and how their business and workforce need to transform to accommodate the changes AI and automation will bring.

Softer skills and problem solving likely to rise

The focus on the social and emotional skills is heartening to us, as we have always believed that soft skills, high-level problem solving expertise, and the ability to innately understand the stakeholder, is what embodies the true value of a professional project manager. Despite much of the AI debate focusing on sentience and adaptive learning, it’s a way off.

There is opportunity to leverage the trajectory of what AI can already offer to project management, such as predictive analytics, however the ‘human’ elements are not yet easily transferrable to machine learning.

McKinsey’s report goes further to predict that organisations will change how they are structured, with a strong shift towards cross-functional, team-based work and an emphasis on agility. Even in a world of rising AI, people will still be at the heart of driving change.

Introducing agile ways of working – not just the methodology we all understand as Agile – will be a high priority as traditional hierarchies are designed primarily for stability, whereas agile organisations are designed for both stability and dynamism. Networks of teams, rapid learning, and fast decision cycles are likely to become the norm. Again, people will be at the heart of project outcomes.

The Shift has Begun

We are already seeing the shift into matrixed project delivery, agile delivery, and the recognition of the value of strong change and communication skills.

For those of us who carry the torch for good project delivery, we can sleep well at night knowing that our fundamental soft skills are unlikely to be replaced by AI any time soon, but will be needed in ever-increasing demand if the world is truly to leverage the upside of the AI Revolution.

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Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...