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The project profession can thrive in the fourth industrial revolution

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There are six key questions that the Association for Project Management (APM) wants us to think about since the launch of their ‘big conversation’ about the future of the project profession. I have submitted my views to these questions in this blog, do you agree or disagree with me?

Hardly a LinkedIn article goes by without some mention of the impact technology such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) is having, or will have, on the world and our jobs. There is lots of scaremongering going on, about how technology will replace jobs – predictions were that the other industrial revolution (IR) would hugely impact jobs and these predictions didn’t wholly materialise. For reference, the first IR was steam and mechanical, the second IR was industrial, and the third was IT.

The World Economic Forum (WEF), in their Future of Jobs Report 2018 actually predict a net gain in jobs in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). What they talk about is moving from ‘automation to augmentation’: “…an approach where businesses look to utilise the automation of some job tasks to complement and enhance their human workforces’ comparative strengths…”

As I understand it, this means if automation is being used for routine tasks this frees project professionals for more complex tasks like reasoning and decision making. We don’t know what the future will hold, yet what we do know is that change is omnipresent – and therefore the need for project management is only going to increase. There is a big focus on technical skills – yet organisations still need effective project management to deliver the digital transformation project.

So, what will project management look like in the future? As asked by the big conversation…if we believe the reports about the role of technology such as automation on jobs, then a lot of routine and repetitive project activities (reporting, data collection and analysis, for example) may be no longer be in the domain of the project professional. Instead, this digital revolution may liberate the profession to focus on more high-value, and more ‘human’ tasks such as cognitive reasoning, problem solving. Humans can still outperform machines in their cognitive abilities – at least for the time being.

To fully function in the 4IR, the profession needs to build on its soft skills. Project management is still too focused on the ‘hard’ technical skills (risk, planning etc) – which is fine – but fundamentally, people run projects. We’ve always known the importance of the ‘soft skills’ and the digital revolution will make this even more important.

Sticking with the WEF for a minute, their Future of Jobs report 2016 stated: “65 per cent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist”.

This is driven a lot by the 4IR in my view and the technologies that we don’t know yet will be needed. That’s exciting for my primary school son as it provides boundless (infinite?) opportunities; less exciting for the future of the project management profession – how can it compete with technologies that haven’t been invented yet?

So I’m passionate about attracting the next generation of project professionals. Linking in with the need to focus on more ‘human’ tasks, project professionals will need to have more innovative, and entrepreneurial skills and mindsets for example. We need people with ideas, creative thinking, awareness of human bias (e.g. loss aversion, endowment effect) and influences, for example behavioural economics (‘nudges’), psychology, neuroscience – to understand human foibles and how these impact the running of projects. Will these skills attract the next generation and maybe a different demographic of project managers more than planning, risk, quality etc?

So who helps us shape change? There is a tendency to work with large corporates to provide examples of projects. I understand why and it makes sense. Yet what about the small-to-medium enterprises who also run projects? We need to engage with those who may not think they are running projects (they are) or may think that project management is too bureaucratic for their needs (it isn’t).

Would seeing a start-up business using project management, for example, shine a light on the need for an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset? Perhaps.

Working with schools would also help shape change; I would like to see more work with schools. All of the skills project professionals need are great life skills – can we attract the next generation as early as school leavers? Equipping school leavers with more of the skills the project profession demands is a way to encourage them to consider it as a career. How many people who did a careers questionnaire at school came out as a project manager? Was it even an option? I would love to see it being an option…

Finally, as the chartered body of the project profession, I believe APM have an obligation to future-proof project management. To shine a spotlight on the importance of project management as they have done. However, the drivers of change will evolve. We will need to evolve the profession with them. With an open mindset, and a lifelong learning attitude of project professionals we will always be able to adapt, and the project profession can thrive in the 4IR.

It’s incumbent on us all to shape the future of the profession and make it fit for the next generation and the future. As APM say ‘the future will only be shaped through collaboration’. So I suggest you all join the big conversation.

Further reading

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