Will Watson make a better project manager than you?

Here’s a question for you (which is the title of an article in a recent Fortune magazine issue):

In the future will there be any work left for people to do?

You probably know about Watson. It’s the supercomputer, built by IBM, that beat the two greatest Jeopardy! champions in history. Its cognitive computing powers are legendary; and, they’re getting better. For example, Watson is 240% faster today than it was two years ago….are you? I know I’m not. In fact, I think I’m slowing down a bit.


Technology, in the form of robots, are taking over, destroying forever jobs that were held by real people, doing them better, more efficiently, and at less cost. Think of your local bank. When was the last time you dealt with a “teller.” Sounds like such an old job title doesn’t it? More often than not you’re simply using the ATM machine. Similar kiosks are found at airports, grocery stores, and now even checking into a hotel. These are rather “simple” machines but there’s more on the horizon.

A Baxter robot from a company called Rethink Robotics can be trained to do all sorts of things such as unpack boxes or take items from a conveyor belt. Currently, a team from Harvard, Yale, and iRobot (maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner) has developed an advanced robotic hand that can pack and unpack boxes and take items from a conveyor belt, count them, and inspect them. Not good news for all those “pickers” working in e-commerce warehouses all over the world.

But it gets more interesting. Watson, and other machines like it represent a new leap in computing power: the power for the computer to learn based on enormous data bases, and then make decisions based on that learning.

Computing technology has entered a new age. Now, IT is threatening workers who thought they didn’t have to worry. Look at what’s happened to legal profession. Sure, the global recession had something to do with it, but it was bound to happen anyway. Computers can now read thousands of documents in the discovery process and flag all kinds of words and phrases that can find culprits and wrong doing. Before this kind of software was developed, humans, in the form of junior lawyers (whose hourly rates were quite high) would sit at their desks reading thousands if not millions of documents in high profile cases to search for evidence. No more, computers do a lot of that and a lot cheaper. Computers can even predict the decisions, with great accuracy, of U.S. Supreme Court cases.

oy vey

What does this have to do with those of us in project management? Well, on large projects especially, we create thousands if not millions of documents don’t we? (Think of Dubai’s “Mall of the World” project soon to get started). What if someone developed software that could read all those documents on a regular basis searching for words and phrases that would indicate a project was heading into trouble long before the PM or anyone else could connect the dots? And, what if the computer had the smarts to offer up advice and recommendations as to how to turn the project around based on the “big data” that an organization stored with lessons learned from their past performance?  No human, in any reasonable period of time, could read all these documents and then draw conclusions based on the content; but, computers can.

I think the PM industry is ripe for a radical disruption of its practices through the use of advanced technology. Yes, we have technology in the form of PPM tools. But we also struggle with the use of those tools as well; and, let’s face it, they’re rather elementary and don’t approach the type of computing possibilities that exist in other fields. Someone, somewhere “out there” must be thinking of how to apply advanced technology to a field that is responsible for so many important work initiatives.

Project managers aren’t going away at least any time soon no matter how fast a computer like Watson can be. People will always want to deal directly with a professional project manager just as people will always want to sit down face to face with their lawyer.

Will Watson make a better PM than you? I don’t think so, but it certainly has the potential to make you better!