If you were to ask a random adult in the street what they associate the idea of artificial intelligence (AI) with, it probably wouldn’t be benign. The mind easily goes to sci-fi extremes since that’s how AI has been portrayed in popular culture. Even in the areas where AI is generally accepted – airbags, smartphones, home hubs – there are often ethical or practical concerns nearby, such as, “Will AI take over my life? My work? Me?”
Artificial intelligence brings change, that is all that can be said for sure, and change can be unsettling. The history of technology implementation in work is never without consequences (often unintended consequences) for the work, the workers and the relationship between worker and employer. It would be naïve to think that AI revolution in project management would be any different.
The first research articles on how AI might affect the tasks of project management date from the mid 1980s. To date, researchers are still enthusiastically building advanced models and algorithms, aiming to innovate and assure project performance with the strengths of the digital over the human. However, as a profession, we know that the work of project management is more than the codifiable tasks of project management. Some ‘classic’ professions, such as doctors or lawyers base practice on highly standardised modes of operation and codes of conduct, and perform tasks that are impossible or even illegal for clients, or the general public, to perform themselves. Project management as a profession is unlike these, it has a hybrid nature.
On one hand, rigorous qualifications or obtaining Chartered status as a project professional offers a certain level of recognition in society, as per the ‘classic’ professions. On the other hand, successful practice that makes the profession desirable to clients relies less on standardised practices, and more on soft skills and innovation of practices to suit different contexts and requirements across industries, organisations and individuals. This ‘situatedness’ and the ways that project professionals learn to perform works against black-and-white code or standards.
It’s clear then, that there is a potential tension when it comes to the digitalisation of project work between, the codification of tasks that make a project professional competent and the social practices which make them excellent. It seems reasonable to ask what the scope for encroachment of AI into this hybrid status is, not so much the technical tasks of project management, but the things that underpin your status, the status of project professionals; which separate the professional from the person who occasionally manages projects, or maybe even a hypothetical device that could do that.
In our research into this issue, we used a two phased approach where we interviewed project professionals on their views of what gave them their differentiated status as professionals. We then combined these categories with the ‘trait theory of profession’ to develop a list of statements. These represented possible interactions between the capabilities of AI and the objective, recognisable attributes of project professionals as a professional group. Another group of project professionals with some exposure to AI then ranked these statements in terms of most or least likely to impact professionals and the project profession.
The results of the ranking from least likely to most likely impacted were:
- Principles and values
- Knowledge (Uncodified)
- Social status of being a project professional
- Sense of community
- Career boost effects of being a project professional
- Emotional status of being a professional
- Knowledge (Codified)
From this, we can argue and see that AI will not be a Terminator, nor a passive assistant serving only to empower the project professional.
So how will AI impact the profession?
A project professional’s clients and employers will aim to use the technology for their own advantages. Equally, it will bring change to the relations between project professionals, the way you learn and have community. If the profession wishes to influence this, the only way is to become familiar with AI tools and continually protect benefits that come from a career in projects, and the emotional status brought by professionalisation. What AI can’t impact, however, is our human principles, values, and soft skills in short term – at least not yet.
There may be those around the project community who disagree with the direction of our work. Really, nobody has information from the future and historical patterns shouldn’t be taken lightly. Everyone’s best projection is also their best guess. In our report, Can artificial intelligence learn to be a project professional? we present ours, or rather, our analysis of the guesses of a collection of people like you. AI is here and it’s continuing to grow – what’s vital is to be prepared.