When executing projects, the importance of the new digital technologies cannot be overstated. This is especially true as teams become ever more fluid and dynamic, with remote working and virtual environments a growing reality.
With each passing year, traditional processes and work practices are turned upside down by the disruptive potential of new tech.
So how are project managers grappling with these opportunities and challenges? This was one of many issues up for debate at a series of sector-specific and corporate partner events hosted by the Association for Project Management (APM).
Here are seven key takeaways for project professionals in the midst of digital adoption.
Efficiency and consistency are the end goals
Technology is transforming many aspects of the job, allowing project managers to step back and reassess where they can add value.
For example, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are speeding up many technical processes, so project managers can spend less time on charts and spreadsheets and more time motivating and coaching their people.
This is a real advantage for lawyers, an APM sector event noted, as they are typically so time-poor. Technology can bring efficiency and consistency to the delivery of legal projects and ensure that core competencies are met – freeing up lawyers for the most valuable tasks.
But you must adopt the right solution for your particular situation – there is no silver bullet.
“It’s up to you how you configure each project site because not every project is the same,” explained Rob MacAdam, vice president of legal solutions at HighQ. “A project over a dispute in mitigation will be quite different to how you manage a more transactional dispute. There are consistencies, but you might need different things.”
Don’t get obsessed – there’s always Excel…
“We sometimes in life sciences get a bit bogged down on the technology side of things,” said Pauline Stewart-Long, a chairman and director of the Pharmaceutical Industry Project Management Group, at a sector event with APM.
“As a sector, we’re very tech driven. The first question is always ‘what tool should we use?’ instead of asking about the people involved.”
It is important that project managers don’t simply jump onto every technological bandwagon that rolls past. Focus on the practical deployment of new developments, not just hype.
“You should also remember that tech isn’t always the solution,” said James Barrett, legal project manager (Europe) at Eversheds Sutherland, at the legal sector event. “I think these tools are amazing, but sometimes keeping things simple does add value. Excel, for all its faults, sometimes does the job better.”
Tech moves fast – like, really fast…
Technology sometimes accelerates faster than organisations’ ability to incorporate it. That isn’t always down to a lack of agility from management. Cost or uncertainty over the effects of new tech on the project can be roadblocks to innovation too.
Management should monitor ‘trapped value’ between their own performance and how tech-adopting market leaders are doing.
“A lot of CXOs think they know enough – but in many cases, they just don’t know what they don’t know,” said Barrington Hilsley, chief executive officer and founder of Physical 2 Digital, at an APM corporate partner event on ‘Embracing Technology and the Future’.
“A lot of people are familiar with the fourth industrial revolution, but that phase is almost over, and the next iterations are coming in rapid succession,” added Colin Ellam, MD of Industry X.0 at Accenture. “We need to be ready not just for the next major shift, but successive ones after that.”
Don’t forget the people
Algorithms, big data, machine learning – all of these can make a huge difference, but not without the buy-in of the people in the organisation.
The ‘human factor’ can completely derail a technology project, warned Adam Street, vice president of digital solutions at Jacobs, at APM’s ‘Harnessing the Power of Data’ corporate partner event. Human nature doesn’t always follow logic. Consider the universally acknowledged, devastating health impact of smoking. “The data tells us not to smoke, but people smoke anyway,” said Street.
Make sure you identify the people intended to benefit from a technology shift and communicate the value effectively.
“Tech is the easy piece. The difficulty is understanding the behaviours and the psychology,” said Street.
Want buy-in? Sell the benefits, not the tech
Speaking at the legal sector event, Barrett explained how he achieved lawyer buy-in for a particular technology transformation. One of the main challenges expressed by lawyers was that they received too many notifications.
“We’ve found that face-to-face training is so valuable to make sure these tools are taken up. There have been a lot of lessons learned, and it’s valuable to share them,” Barrett reflected.
Ellam explored how project managers can overcome cultural barriers to securing buy-in, especially from more senior stakeholders. He pointed out that people with great responsibility will naturally need hard business justifications for tech disruption. But they need to balance that with an organisation’s need to stay relevant and feel modern to attract talent.
“Too many technology pitches are too technical or full of jargon,” warned Andrew Langridge, director of business development at ARES Project Management. “Help them visualise the change; use the data to create a clearer sense of the business challenge your project solves.”
Data visualisation provides huge potential…
The project profession is lagging behind when it comes to utilising data. That was one key finding from the ‘Harnessing the Power of Data’ event. At the seminar, speakers explored how data could be used to make improvements in organisational performance and project success rates in any sector.
Ellam explained how visualising projects in virtual worlds allows project design to reflect likely realities on the ground. It also helps train project team members ahead of time on tricky tasks and potential challenges.
Construction projects, for example, can use 4D visualisations to look forward, review options and risks and come up with design solutions.
Machine learning, meanwhile, can use data to find risks and present them to project managers.
“The challenge we’ve got from a behaviour standpoint is: if we say there’s a 70 per cent chance that this risk in three years is going to kill you, will you take action?” said Street.
… but we need to get a grip on the data
“We must always ‘mind the digital gap’ between physical reality and the way data is presented,” warned Hilsley. “How we gather, analyse and visualise data must reflect the truth on the ground.”
This is where blockchain may come in. A shared, immutable and secure database has obvious applications for those in the supply chain business, and even some in the project management world.
Tracking activities and deliverables – and even automatically updating and triggering individual contract clauses – could be a valuable disruption.
“Visualisation of supply chains is incredibly useful,” said Hilsley. “If something moves, you really need to be able to record that movement reliably. Having a single version of the data about that thing gives us the chance to analyse how it’s moving and where – but also to introduce greater trust and transparency into the supply chain.”
You can read a full write up from this year’s Corporate Partner Forum – Projecting the Future, plus write ups from other events, by joining the APM Corporate Partnership Programme.
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