Some science fiction writers predicted that in future robots would be just smart assistants to humans, following their rules and, except in rare cases, carrying out mundane tasks. In many ways their predictions are coming true right before our eyes. Being served by robot waiters or using chatbots in customer service don’t seem surprising anymore today, not to mention robotization of back office processes in insurance companies or the use of robots in manufacturing. In view of these tendencies, managers take this opportunity to increase productivity and reduce costs. However, they still strongly believe in their uniqueness and indispensability and thus are feeling safe.
We all know that hierarchical organizations and modern management started forming as recently as 200 years ago at the time of the industrial revolution, when in the course of mass production the significance of transaction costs minimization increased coordinating the work of a large number of people.
Today the level of enterprise computerization is rather high, therefore a manager deals mostly with information flows rather than directly with humans, and in this case coordination and assessment of work results can be often done without the manager’s immediate supervision. Recently, Uber has become the talk of the town. It doesn’t have its own taxi fleet, but it manages thousands of taxis worldwide by means of its software platform. And there is a growing number of similar companies operating under a program engine, for example, Airbnb for short-term rentals, Kickstarter for funding creative projects, 99designs Tasks for graphic design services, and YouDo for personal services.
Robots are replacing humans not only as ordinary performers but also as operation middle managers. Although it is now barely noticeable, it will become more obvious in time. Gartner research confirms this trend saying that by 2018 45% of fast-growing companies will have fewer employees than smart machines, and more than 3 million people will be managed by robot bosses.
So what’s to be done with project management then? Obviously, a role of a project manager is the key to successful accomplishment of any project. However, the situation is not as simple as it may seem. Normally, a project manager has the so-called hard skills, i.e. knowledge of project management methodologies as well as planning tools and techniques, monitoring of task performance, risk management and other purely professional skills, and soft skills, i.e. convincing skills, negotiating skills, leadership, mentorship, etc.
It is assumed that most responsibilities of a project manager are hard skills. They include the staffing of a project team, scheduling, decomposition and task assignment, monitoring of the project framework, terms and budget, and in the near future they can be supervised by robots as they are well algorithmized. An experimental system iCEO proves this trend. It helped successfully implement a project for generation of a 124-page research report, including decomposition of tasks and hiring of 23 contractors worldwide. Thus, whereas a previous generation of a similar report had taken several weeks to complete, iCEO as a project manager coped with it in 3 days! And this is just the beginning.
As regards soft skills that a project manager should apply, such as negotiating, discussing with a customer questions concerning the extension of a project framework, signing acceptance certificates and paying for the performed work, it is obvious that the required creative approach can be provided so far by a person only. However, it is worth mentioning that the development of speech recognition technologies and text semantic analysis using artificial intelligence have been constantly developing. We are likely to see that the majority of project management processes will shift towards robot automation soon. Therefore, the role of a project manager will be limited mostly to project initiation and task accomplishment, which requires personal interaction with customers and contractors, and, of course, responsibility to investors if something goes wrong.