Project Management and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Projects and strategies for managing them have been around at least since humans made the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture-based economies. The complex, fast-paced modern business environment makes project management a necessity, but effective management programs were likely just as essential for monumental projects like the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, and the Medieval cathedrals of Europe.

In fact, formal project management approaches have proven their utility over time when it comes to getting complex jobs done right. And while the core principle of management has remained the same over time – a complex undertaking is broken down into component tasks and resources are allocated to effect the efficient completion of those tasks  – techniques have changed, particularly with the digital transition.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

The versions of project management we are familiar with today are generally considered to have risen out of the first industrial revolution of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The development of steam power, the growth of construction, manufacturing, and transportation, and large-scale projects like transcontinental rail lines, road and highway systems, and major war efforts lead to increasing development of project management tactics.

A second revolution was prompted by the advance of electric power and the advent of automated assembly lines. Semi-conductors, computer technology, and the Internet initiated the third industrial revolution and are still driving it. Now, we are seeing the leading edges of what Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum Professor Klaus Schwab refers to as the fourth industrial revolution.

Schwab describes the fourth revolution as characterized by hybrid technologies that combine elements of the physical, digital, and biological realms into what are referred to as cyber-physical systems. Autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, nanotechnology, and quantum computing exemplify the type of disruptive breakthroughs that mark the fourth industrial revolution.

Planning the Future

The World Economic Forum predicts a net loss of over 5 million jobs associated with the 4th Industrial Revolution as automation and new technologies drive streamlining and the restructure of job roles. Innovation and disruption will also influence the project management field as the drive for new products and services calls for flexible, context-adaptive approaches that will engage delocalized, loosely-connected project team members in virtual workspaces and online labs.

Methods for running projects will tend away from traditional management paradigms toward facilitation. Social skills and cross-cultural communication capabilities will gain in importance. Fluid teams that come together for a particular project or even a specific task will include members with increasingly specialized skills sets. Project planning and management tools, like this one, will become more intelligent and sophisticated, and huge amounts of data will be available for analysis and sharing. Many of the routine tasks project managers perform will be automated.

But even though Industry 4.0 will call for project managers with new mindsets and capabilities, technological evolution is driven by human rationality, intuitions, and needs. The core mission of managers, the satisfaction of human needs, will remain unchanged even if the methods we use to reach that objective are nearly unrecognizable from our current vantage point.

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