Interview: Future of project management in a world of digitalisation

In conversation with Murat Bicak, Senior VP of Strategy at Project Management Institute (PMI), who discusses the role of technology in transforming the future of work and much more.

Businesswoman in conference room using tablet with weather data. Image for illustrative purposes.

Businesswoman in conference room using tablet with weather data. Image for illustrative purposes.

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As businesses embrace digitalisation as a future-proofing strategy, the interactions between projects, organisations and individuals are being transformed, according to Murat Bicak, Senior VP of Strategy at Project Management Institute (PMI), the world's largest professional association representing project management practitioners.

Digitalisation involves the deployment of technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine-learning, Big Data and Internet of Things (IoT) to improve or transform business operations and functions.

While the core proposition of project management - which is about getting things done - remains unchanged, what is transforming is "how the pace of change impacts projects, organisations and individuals and how these systems start interacting with each other," said Bicak in an interview with Thomson Reuters Projects.

He pointed to the decrease in the "survival rates of organisations" over the past few years as an indicator of the impact of digital disruption on businesses.

"In the '50s and '60s, S&P 500 organisations had a 60-year survival rate. Over the next five to six years, we expect that survival rate to go down to the teens, may be 12, 13 or 14 years and that puts a lot of pressure on every organisation," the PMI executive said on the sidelines of Dubai International Project Management Forum (DIPMF) in December 2018.

He reasoned that survival rates have dropped because "a lot of organisations are going through some sort of change," and while "every change is delivered through a project, some organisations are unable to focus on the right attributes."

Paraphrasing a quote by the ex-CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, who spoke at a PMI event last year, he said many organisations focus on protecting their past but what they really need to do is focus on protecting their future.

"I think that's a very profound observation because when we look at organisations such as Netflix or Amazon, we see that even during the course of their more than 25 years of existence, these companies are reinventing themselves," he noted.

He added that to keep pace with such changes, project managers need to think differently about the questions they need to ask, how fast they should deliver and how machine and algorithms would complement their teams.

"We used to emphasise social skills because project management is about how you manage between the technical skills, the leadership skills and the strategy. Now we have put a fourth layer on top because digital skills are equally important if not more important. What that means is - how do I interact with a new member, or may be new members of my team which are machines and algorithms."

He said the success story of US-based Stitch Fix, an online personal styling service for clothing founded in 2011, could be a good example of how projects will change in the future. The company, currently valued at $2 billion, was built on a premise that "everybody in the world could have their own designer."

"They did that by pairing AI with human stylists to understand people's clothing choices. With close to 100 data scientists, more than 100 algorithms that are constantly learning and insights, they can actually design clothing that no retailer can do," he said.

Bicak then painted a scenario where every project would have humans at the centre, machines and teams around them and many ecosystem players.

He continued: "Decisions would be made very quickly based on interpreting data, understanding data, asking lots of questions, building hypothesis, killing hypothesis and pivoting, and that changes the whole way of value delivery."

Future of work

Commenting on impact of such changes on project management, Bicak said it is inevitable that some tasks would be automated over a period of time. He referred to an October 2017 PMI podcast with Michael Chui, Partner, McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), who said that half of all the activities people are being paid to do in the global workforce could be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies.

"That doesn't mean that 50 percent of jobs are going away but that 50 percent of tasks can be automated," said Bicak.

Another study by MGI on the future of work, published in December 2017, found that that between 75 million and 375 million people around the world may need to change occupational categories and acquire new skills by the year 2030.

On the other hand, the outsourcing of certain tasks to machines or algorithms would also "create a lot of time" for project managers to focus on the problems they need to solve, said the PMI official.

He said: "We're then going to find ourselves more in the role of understanding, asking questions, generating insights and leading. Critical thinking, creativity and innovativeness are going to become much more important going forward and I think we're going to have to retrain our workforce to reclaim that capability."

But he also struck a note of caution on current hype around AI systems, pointing out that the technology is still at a nascent stage.

He said: "While AI has taken off in recent years due to the coming together of algorithm technology, super-computing capability and availability of data, in 2018, we learned that if our data is biased, the output will be biased. We have learned that a lot of the data that has been used for a number of algorithms are actually biased from a racial perspective due to which they will make decisions that will be wrong or biased."

A February 2018 press statement from MIT, citing a joint MIT- Stanford University study, said gender and skin-type bias were found in commercial facial-analysis programs with error rates as high as 34 percent in determining the gender of dark-skinned women.

"Because of what has happened, researchers understood the immensity of this problem. We need to think about aspects like legislation, governance and ethical coding. Thus, for example, last year, Stanford University launched Human-Centred AI Initiative (HAI) to bring together academia, industry, and governments to guide the future development of AI."

Virtuous savings cycle

The savings from digitalisation can be reclaimed and reinvested to drive further savings in projects akin to a virtuous cycle, noted Bicak.

The 2018 edition of PMI's annual Pulse of the Profession survey had found that nearly 10 percent of every dollar is wasted due to poor project performance, which translates to $99 million for every $1 billion invested.

He explained: "Now we're not only going to not waste that 10 percent but we're going to be able to take that and put it back into the system, and do that several times so that it's not just 10 cents on the dollar that will be saved. It's going to create ROI that will be put back into the system. We don't know that yet but we believe that it will be significant."

He also pointed out that a key mandate for the strategy function that he helms at PMI is to prepare the non-profit association for the "immensity of change in the future of work" through a transformation programme.

"The question we are asking is: what does the digital technology represent for the profession and what will it enable us to do that we weren't able to do before? Our transformation is about finding that answer," he said.

Under the transformation programme, he continued, PMI decided to change posture and invest in innovation and in data capabilities to better understand its stakeholders and their needs, and think even more forward in terms of post-agile conversations so that projects can be delivered better with less waste, more effectively, more efficiently and really reach the outcomes.

"I think the premise of this programme is that it gives us an opportunity to really reinvent ourselves and do something that we have not done before that will advance humanity," he concluded.

(Reporting by Anoop Menon; Editing by Mily Chakrabarty)


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