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When tech moves from enabler to distraction

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The past few months have accelerated tech adoption in project management. Is it a help or a hindrance?

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the use of technology in everyday working lives across the UK. 

Remote working has become the norm for numerous businesses, with tools such as Zoom, Teams and Trello now integrated into our working lives. These programmes have enabled working life to continue beyond the office, events to happen virtually and projects to be completed from a distance.

With the acceleration of tech adoption, there has been a push towards data-driven project management – using technology to deliver projects better, harness data and streamline working patterns.

However, there may be a price to pay. Employees have become isolated and more dependent on technology than ever before. How can project managers remain productive and make the most of the technology at their fingertips?

Productivity isn’t solely reliant on tech

Technology can enable productivity. Tools such as Trello and Jira are designed for this purpose. They can monitor operations, budgets and check that everything is completed on time. 

However, technology alone cannot ensure that productivity increases. There remain some variables – as with any human activity. 

Dan Cooper, MD of digital transformation company Lolly.co, says: “We need to consider that, despite the latest technologies and digital innovations, employees are still human. Reducing people and their projects to algorithms and time slots ignores the role of distractions and problems that arise within the working day.” 

Any technology can disrupt and distract, slowing down operations and lowering productivity, he says. But the key is adapting to these technologies, unleashing their full potential to further data-driven insights.

Without a physical office presence, it’s easy to miss social cues such as body language or signs of stress. These cannot be picked up so easily on Zoom or Teams meetings. 

This, according to Reetu Kansal, senior project manager at the University of London, has an impact on accumulative productivity. 

“Face-to-face, you can actually see a person’s body language,” says Kansal, “for example, if they’re distracted, looking elsewhere. That’s an indication that something else is on their mind, and you can ask them if they want to pick it up later.”

Kansal says the best way to ensure that project profesionals pick up on these cues is to have good communication channels, such as asking everyone to have their camera on in a meeting or tailoring communication to each team member. 

This also matters when trying to persuade and influence stakeholder decisions. 

Business consultant and experienced project manager Dr Hugo Minney says: “Project managers are struggling because of not being able to get face-to-face with people. So much in communication relies on body language, presence and many things that are not possible with a video call, and certainly not possible if your broadband is a bit dodgy.

“But, at the same time, the show has to go on. So we’re making do and getting by. I joke that I’m a third less productive because everybody else can get on with their work without interruption, whereas I’m the interruption that can’t get through."

Dante Healy, a freelance finance analytics project manager, says how you use technology is often more important than the capabilities of the tech. “If you put tech on top of bad thinking, then you’re just augmenting that bad thinking. It’s not about technology being good or bad, per se, it’s really what it’s enabling. For example, if you had multiple different applications doing the same thing.

“In terms of project management itself, you touch upon multiple things. If you’re managing the whole project, you need to have communications with different functions – for example, finance, HR. If they all have their own unique ways of filling in a form, then that can slow the system down while you figure out how to do a certain thing.”

Knowledge is power

Harnessing data in project management makes sense; it can clearly explain what works and what does not work to stakeholders. You can use technology to show the progress of projects.

However, data alone is not knowledge, Dr Minney suggests. It needs to be interpreted and put within a wider context to be truly useful. 

“Some say that data analytics is even more important than knowledge, to which I say that data analytics is completely empty if it’s not turned into knowledge,” says Dr Minney.

Some take this to mean that data is a bit of a ‘white elephant’. Cooper says that’s not true, so long as the technology is used correctly. 

“Ensuring technology streamlines operations and does not hinder is a task left in the hands of the employee it supposedly displaces. Project managers have long been using tools that track metrics and help make informed decisions based on data.”

Instead, project professionals can use technology and data as tools to boost their teams and their results, rather than them being a distractor or the sole method of project management. 

“There will be a push-back in the assumption that data-driven management will supersede all other forms,” says Dr Minney. “Like everything else, it will just be assimilated.”

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