By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D.| Senior Executive Director for Project Management, IIL
Recently, I conducted a webinar on PM 2.0/3.0: The Future of Project Management. During the Q&A session that followed, I was asked if PM 4.0 (which I am now researching and will be publishing shortly) would include a discussion of the role of artificial intelligence (AI) applied to project management. I was also recently interviewed by a person working on a graduate degree, who asked what I believed would be the relationship between project management and AI in the future.
It appears that the world of AI is now entering the project management community of practice, and there is significant interest in this topic. While I am certainly not an expert in AI, I became curious about how developments in AI could benefit project management.
A common definition of AI is intelligence exhibited by machines. From a project management perspective, could a machine eventually mimic the cognitive functions associated with the mind of a project manager such as decision-making and problem-solving?
The principles of AI are already being used in speech recognition systems and search engines such as Google Search and Siri. Self-driving cars use AI concepts as do military simulation exercises and content delivery networks. Computers can now defeat most people in strategy games such as chess. It is just a matter of time before we see AI techniques involved in project management.
The overall purpose of AI is to create computers and machinery that can function in an intelligent manner. This requires the use of statistical methods, computational intelligence and optimization techniques. The programming for such AI techniques requires not only an understanding of technology but also an understanding of psychology, linguistics, neuroscience and many other knowledge areas.
The question regarding the use of AI is whether the mind of a project manager can be described so precisely that it can be simulated using the techniques described above. will accomplish this in the near term, but there is hope because of faster computers, the use of cloud computing, and increases in machine learning technology. However, there are some applications of AI that could assist project managers in the near term:
- The growth in competing constraints rather use of the traditional triple constraints will make it more difficult to perform tradeoff analyses. The use of AI concepts could make life easier for the project manager.
- We tend to take it for granted that the assumptions and constraints given to us at the onset of the project will remain intact throughout the life-cycle of the project. Today, we know that this is not true and that all assumptions and constraints must be tracked throughout the life-cycle. AI could help us in this area.
- Executives quite often do not know when to intervene in a project. Many companies today are using crises dashboards. When an Executive looks at the crises dashboard on his/her computer, the display identifies only those projects that may have issues, which metrics are out of the acceptable target range, and perhaps even the degree of criticality. AI practices could identify immediate actions that could be taken and thus shorten response time to out-of-tolerance situations.
- Management does not know how much additional work can be added to the queue without overburdening the labor force. As such, projects are often added to the queue with little regard for (1) resource availability, (2) skill level of the resources needed, and (3) the level of technology needed. AI practices could allow us to create a portfolio of projects that has the best chance to maximize the business value the firm will receive while considering effective resource management practices.
- Although some software algorithms already exist, project schedule optimization practices still seem to be a manual activity using trial and error techniques. Effective AI practices could make schedule optimization significantly more effective by considering all of the present and future projects in the company rather than just individual projects.
Project managers are often pressured to make rapid decisions based on intuition rather than by step-by-step deduction used by computers. Nothing is simply true or false because we must make assumptions. Generally speaking, the more information we have available, the fewer the assumptions that must be made. With a sufficient database of information, AI tools could perform reasoning and problem solving based upon possibly incomplete or partial information. AI can visualize the future and provide us with choices that can maximize the value of the decision.
If AI practices are to be beneficial to the project management community of practice, then “pockets” of project management knowledge that existed in the past must be consolidated into a corporate-wide knowledge management system that includes all of the firm’s intellectual property as shown below.
The more information available to the AI tools, the greater the value of the outcome. Therefore, the starting point must be a consolidation of project management intellectual property and the AI tools must have access to this information. PMOs will most likely have this responsibility.
While all of this sounds workable, there are still some downside risks based on which area of knowledge in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) where we apply the AI tools. As an example:
- As an example, using the Human Resources Knowledge Area, can AI measure and even demonstrate empathy in dealing with people?
- In the Integration Management Knowledge Area, can AI add in additional assumptions and constraints that were not included in the business case when the project was approved?
- In the Stakeholder Management Knowledge Area, can the AI tools identify the power and authority relationships of each stakeholder?
- And with regard to machine ethics, can an AI tool be made to follow or adhere to the Project Management Institute (PMI)® Code of Ethics and Professional Responsibility when making a decision?
While all of this seems challenging and futuristic to some, AI is closer than you think. Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft have established a non-profit partnership to formulate best practices on artificial intelligence technologies, advance the public’s understanding, and to serve as a platform for artificial intelligence.
They stated: “This partnership on AI will conduct research, organize discussions, provide thought leadership, consult with relevant third parties, respond to questions from the public and media, and create educational material that advances the understanding of AI technologies including machine perception, learning, and automated reasoning.”
Apple joined other tech companies as a founding member of the Partnership on AI in January 2017. The corporate members will make financial and research contributions to the group while engaging with the scientific community to bring academics on board.
Given the fact that those tech companies are all heavy users of project management, and by some are considered to have world-class project practices, how long do you think it will be before they develop AI practices for their own project management community of practice? The implementation of AI practices to project management may very well be right around the corner.
 This definition and part of this blog have been adapted from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: Artificial Intelligence.
 (Wikipedia footnote) “Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society”. N.p., n.d. 24 October 2016.
 (Wikipedia footnote) Fiegerman, Seth. “Facebook, Google, Amazon Create Group to Ease AI Concerns”. CNNMoney. n.d. 4 December 2016.
Harold Kerzner, Ph.D. is IIL’s Senior Executive Director for Project Management. He is a globally recognized expert on project management and strategic planning, and the author of many best-selling textbooks, most recently Project Management 2.0.