Siri has proven that the future of Project Management is soft (skills)

It was only a few years back that the concept of a natural language, expert system-based computer interface seemed far out of reach to the average person.  While the iPhone 4S’s Siri is not the first release of such technology, Apple’s real game changer is that it will help to make such capabilities a commodity in a few years.

The potential that Siri tantalizes us with combined with the success that IBM’s Watson achieved on Jeopardy earlier this year convinces me that within the next decade (or two if I hedge my bets!), many of the “hard” skills that project managers learn and take for granted are likely to be delegated to non-human assistants.

An example of this might be in the identification and analysis of risks – a Watson-like expert system having access to vast data stores of historical projects combined with a Siri-like natural language interface could address the knowledge gaps and “gut feel” blind spots that occur when a small group of human beings is asked to do the same thing.  Parametric estimation and costing tools have been around for decades, but their complexity and costs have usually restricted their use to specific industries and project valuations – commoditizing these would start to provide objective data to defend budget and schedule requests.  In both examples, human beings are not eliminated, but their role changes from executing the process to providing the inputs and validating the outputs.

This is a very natural evolution of a profession – twenty years back in Computer Science, universities tended to focus on advanced topics such as assembler programming and operating system design – these days the focus tends to be more on mainstream content for undergraduate degrees.  In a similar fashion, the PM hard skills that we learned and practiced in the past will morph from a practical to a more academic value.

While this might alarm some budding project managers, what won’t change in the forseeable future is the criticality and greater importance of soft skills.  An uber-Watson could come up with the perfect project plan (covering schedule, cost, quality, risk, communication, etc.), but selling the merits of that plan to decision makers, negotiating through scope changes, building a high performing team, and managing customer expectations are not likely to be outsourced that easily.

What this implies is that PM education programs need to shift the emphasis from tools and techniques to business and people skills – this is still a rarity in most “foundational” project management curricula, but it is an opportunity for differentiation.

Who knows, perhaps in the (more distant) future, instead of the PM having to let their customer know that a requested change is unrealistic, it might be Siri’s descendant saying “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that!”

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