Meet the project influencer: why technology and automation cannot replace project managers any time soon

18 October, 2021

Mohammad Alkhaldi

Partner, Transformation Management Unit & Head of the Centre of Excellence, PwC Middle East

Strong leadership and strategic thinking will ensure that the new breed of project managers remain effective and essential in the era of digital transformation

Projects are becoming larger and more complex, with mega projects and organisation-wide transformations becoming the norm in the Middle East. While digitisation has created efficiencies, the speed at which technology evolves means projects, processes and business models are in a constant state of evolution, and demand for people with the skills to manage these complex changes has surged.

Despite being valued by many organisations, several published articles have predicted that project managers are set to become obsolete in the near future. Gartner estimates that 80% of all project management tasks will be automated by 2030, due to the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) and digital technologies which can analyse and process data far faster and more accurately than people. 

In reality however, the project manager role cannot practically and effectively be replaced by technology and AI any time soon. Just as the business environment evolves, the project manager role is also changing - and as a result becoming more important than ever. PwC’s latest research shows that the best PMs are no longer solely focused on scope, schedule and budget. Rather, they leverage new technologies to streamline much of this work, choosing instead to focus on understanding their organisation’s strategic goals, building relationships across management and business units, and influencing outcomes.

This new breed of what we call “project influencers” are much more than traditional project managers. They possess a range of attributes that can never be practically replaced by a machine. Attributes that enable them to add critical strategic value to organisations amid the region’s accelerating transformation.

The Project Influencer: Key Skills and Attributes

Beyond business basics

At an operational level and on a day-to-day basis, project influencers have all the fundamental and necessary project management qualifications and skills. They are highly organised, and demonstrate the ability to apply disciplined control over the scope and schedule while devising and operating within budgets for complex, large-scale projects.

Beyond the fundamentals however, project influencers have the business acumen to see the big strategic picture past the immediate PMO agenda. They have a strong understanding of their organisation and industry, and insight into how the execution of a project can help solve key business challenges.

Agile ways of working

Project influencers have an agile mindset, adopting a flexible approach to problems as they arise during the lifetime of a project. They are constantly willing to re-evaluate and adapt to changing circumstances to achieve better outcomes more efficiently, often reducing costs as a result.

Advanced digital skills underpin their agility, enabling project influencers to leverage technology to streamline processes and achieve enhanced, data-driven decision making and problem-solving. “The project managers who have an agile mindset have evolved and kept up with changing times and new technologies,” says the agile delivery lead at one organisation.

The human factor

Project influencers are also sensitive amateur psychologists who are adept at bringing the best out of their teams. They possess emotional intelligence and can leverage it to accelerate progress during challenging projects by building relationships and trust. They are excellent motivators who are comfortable in positions of authority and are therefore able to hold colleagues accountable.

“The human factor is critical in project management,” says a public sector Strategy and Innovation Leader in Saudi Arabia. “Technology can’t put someone in another person’s shoes, so you can understand the other side and then find the right solutions, how to comfort people and make the right decision that will help everyone.”

Conclusion: Technology amplifies, rather than replace, the project influencer’s value

In our discussions with Middle East project and transformation leaders, we found little evidence or belief that new technologies will, or can, replace the human project manager any time soon. Instead, our research indicates that digital tools and processes are helping project influencers make the most of their skills and attributes to deliver additional strategic value to organisations.

It is undeniable that traditional project management functions at the level of scheduling and reporting are rapidly being replaced by automated processes. Any business which fails to grasp this reality will likely find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Conversely, organisations that underestimate the critical role played by human project influencers in an era of rapid, digitally-driven change will struggle to capture key transformational opportunities in the region.

Organisations that employ digitally-enabled project influencers with the right strategic and interpersonal skills will see faster delivery, mitigated risk and more customer-centred solutions. As a Strategy and ePMO Leader in Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector explains: “Project management is one of the trades that is heavily involved in stakeholder management and problem-solving, and these things require human intelligence. We are all believers in technology, but at the same time, I believe the role of humans is vital to projects.”

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