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Can artificial intelligence learn to be a project professional?Can artificial intelligence learn to be a project professional

About the research and why it is important?

PwC reported that “Gartner forecasts that 80% of project management roles will be eliminated by 2030 as AI takes on traditional project management functions such as data collection, tracking and reporting.” What are the implications of this for human project professionals? On the one hand, it appears to be a loss of roles. On the other hand, association with AI could signal smartness and a future-facing attitude for an occupation and its practitioners. It may even increase demand for certain aspects of this class of expert labour. However, social scientists in the area of employment and the professions are cautious about a rush towards implementation of AI before we fully understand the interaction between occupations of expert labour and AI.

Led by the University of Manchester this research aims to identify AI-aware project managers' beliefs, opinions and expectations regarding AI in the project management profession. The research evaluates these, using the sociology of professions and AI expert opinion, as to how realistic those expectations are and the possible implications for the professional status of project management.

The main research question is: To what extent can we ‘un-blackbox’ project management as a profession – Can AI learn to be a professional project manager?

To answer this question, three research objectives and associated questions can be posed:

  1. What does ‘professional’ mean to project managers?
  2. What is the information in project management that cannot be digitalised as the input for AI to deliver project management professional practice?
  3. What are the distinctive, defensible project management actions or competences fundamental to status as a profession that are beyond the output of an AI?
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Intended audience

This research will primarily be of interest to project professionals and organisations across all business sectors who have an interest in AI or areas such as project data.  The report is also likely to be of interest to academics and students as AI becomes an increasingly popular research topic within the digitalisation of project management. 

How was the research undertaken?

The research was undertaken using a mixed methods approach comprising a literature review, depth interviews with 35 project professionals and 2 focus groups of 7-10 participants based exploring AI competences through a Q-methodology ranking structure to obtain a consensus-ranking of perceptions and beliefs.

What did we discover?

From our combination of literature review and interviews with project professionals, the profession of project management is described here as the mastery of ‘hard’ tasks, ‘soft’ skills, professional principles and ethics, providing a sense of community and a career booster. From analysis of the opinions of project practitioners with experience of adopting new technologies, early adoption of AI appears to be augmenting the predictive analysis and data sorting functions of human project managers. However, these two roles lie in the hard tasks category. What separates project professionals from people who simply manage projects and the machines that might, are the principles and values which translate into project/business outcomes in their daily work. These are the most ‘defensible’ competences that cannot be easily replicated or substituted by AI.

Through our research, it was revealed that project professionals currently regard AI as having an assistive role in project management due to its ability to deal with big data and to simulate project performance, but ultimately a passive role, rather than having ownership of any decision-making process or directly organising project team members. It will be unable to fully replicate the competencies of a professional, especially when it comes to ethics and responsibilities to the community of clients and peers. Human project managers observe professional conduct in their workplace and learn it from experience, a process which cannot be fully digitalised. As professionalism is a learned behaviour, anything that impacts the ways in which project managers learn to be professional will affect professionalisation and the status of human project managers. It is in project management’s interests to determine what this impact will be, else other industry forces will.

Recommendations

In order to obtain the benefits of AI for the professionalisation of project management and defend against the threat of encroachment that is not on professionals’ terms, human project professionals and their professional associations should:

  • Demonstrate and develop codes of ethics, particularly around the negotiation and convincing of clients
  • Motivate project professionals towards ethical conduct and soft skill development
  • Develop and reward the use of soft skills in the workplace, particularly motivation and recognition of peer excellence
  • Master data management skills to create better data sources as data quality can impact both human and AI development
  • Master basic AI knowledge in order to maintain control of and work with AI and deliver successful projects
  • Strengthen senior–junior relationships and peer-learning approaches, building mentorship between senior and junior project managers within an organisation
  • Promote new learning opportunities for juniors, especially if the more routine activities become digitalised
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