Can Project Management Be Automated?

Automation. The word calls to mind thoughts of Terminator’s Skynet or I, Robot’s VIKI. When we discuss automation, the human mind tends to gravitate naturally to the risks and downsides. It’s a natural self-preservation mechanism, but it can also blind us to the possibilities and upsides of automation.

In the case of automation in Project Management, there are a whole host of potential advantages it can offer, including:

  • Offloading of routine tasks
  • Scalability
  • Improved risk assessment and mitigation capabilities
  • Opportunities for efficiency gains
  • More effective communication

Here is how these benefits of project management automation break down:

1. Offload routine tasks

Any software that can automate certain project management processes will lessen the burden of many repetitive-but-important tasks. Things such as tracking time, updating and submitting estimates, managing resources, reporting, tracking changes and quality control can all be handled by project management automation software. This, in turn, frees the project manager and their team to focus on other, more productive tasks.

2. Automation provides scalability

When a project management team is relieved of the burden of managing many of its routine tasks, it frees up capacity to take on more projects and deliver greater output back to their organization.

Further, though, automation in project management also provides technical scalability. As the number and complexity of projects increases, automation can help ensure the various systems involved in delivering the project are connected and sharing information as needed.

Imagine this: you’re managing a project that involves multiple rounds of stakeholder feedback, quality control tests, and input from multiple members of the project team. Currently, your team uses one software application to manage project tasks and resources, a second application to communicate updates and share documents with each other, another to track project time and expenses, and yet another to perform quality control checks. Stakeholder feedback is sent manually via email. Your team is responsible for aggregating and synthesizing all these disparate pieces in order to effectively move the project forward in a way that contemplates all of the stakeholder feedback.

What would happen if you tried to extend that process to another project? To five other projects? It simply wouldn’t be possible; the project team would be spending all of their time aggregating information. This is how automation helps scale output. By bringing all these disparate elements together and managing everything centrally, automation can allow project managers and their teams to focus more exclusively on project delivery.

3. Improved risk assessment and mitigation capabilities

As it turns out, humans aren’t great at accurately estimating probabilistic risks, especially when multiple probabilities are compounded together. This makes it very difficult for project managers to predict with any degree of certainty the chance of things going wrong during a given project.

Software that helps to automate project forecasting and budgeting is much more effective at this. It can mine data from past projects in order to more accurately predict potential risks and roadblocks in future projects. The result is that the project manager is better able to plan for identified risks, as well as more accurately estimate time-to-completion for the various project workstreams. Not only does this make a project run more efficiently; it can also greatly improve the stakeholder management process by allowing the project manager to more accurately set expectations.

4. Automation can create and identify opportunities for efficiency gains

Software that can track what each member of the project team is working on, while that may seem a little too similar to Big Brother, allows the project manager to identify areas where time is being lost, as well as to dig into why that might be the case. The application can then make suggestions as to how the process could be improved going forward. Such optimization suggestions could include positioning each member of a project team to work on the tasks at which they most excel (“aces in their places”); they could also include scheduling adjustments and ways to minimize overtime.

Such software can also act as an early warning monitor, alerting project managers when a workstream is showing signs of going off-timeline or over-budget.

As valuable as reactive alerts can be to a project manager, though, the greatest opportunity may lie in the potential for predictive modeling and experimentation. Think along the lines of analyzing various possible delivery routes in order to minimize fuel costs or maximize load delivery. These types of experiments can result in larger efficiency gains than simply optimizing an existing operating model.

5. Project management automation can facilitate more effective communication

Project management automation software can greatly improve communication efficiency on a project management team. By centralizing and automating status reports, a project manager can easily gauge the progress of each workstream of a project. The same application can more easily surface, bring visibility to, and facilitate iteration on ideas from the team.

Will automation replace humans in project management?

Likely not; at least, not any time soon. While software can perform and automate many tasks and analyses much more efficiently than people can, it can’t easily assess the human elements of project management. Software can’t report on team morale, for example, nor can it help team members improve upon their weaknesses (though it can help identify those weaknesses).

What it can do, however, is greatly simplify many of the more routine and mundane tasks and processes that currently take up an inordinate amount of a team’s time. This would allow project teams to operate more efficiently and in alignment with their greatest strengths.

These efficiency gains will likely cause the role of the project manager to evolve as well. With simple tasks no longer requiring the attention of the project manager, they will need to deal with increasingly more nuanced and complex challenges. More advanced skills such as strategy & innovation, conflict resolution, stakeholder management, digital literacy, etc. will become more valuable and important than traditional framework skills in the world of automated project management.

In conclusion, project teams likely need not worry about being replaced by automation software any time soon; they should, however, expect and prepare for their roles and responsibilities to evolve. Project management can be automated, and likely will see some degree of greater automation in the near future.

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