Technology and the Project Manager

Maxine Hill, Project Manager, WSP USA
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Maxine Hill, Project Manager, WSP USA

Maxine Hill, Project Manager, WSP USA

The role of the project manager is generally defined as the person in overall charge of, and accountable for, the planning, execution, and success of a project. Historically, the measure of success has been “was it finished on time and within budget?”

In the engineering and construction world, projects are becoming increasingly complex—larger in size and value and with a broader range of requirements, all delivered at a faster pace with ever more sophisticated procurement and project delivery methods. Clients range from private developers to construction companies to huge public agencies—each with their own way of working, processes, and procedures.

To deal with this, the role of the project manager is becoming ever more multi-dimensional. The project manager must be able to guide a team in balancing the needs of their employer for efficiency and profit against the demands of the client for quality and speed.

  We must take care with how we implement new systems and temper our expectations  

Engineering and construction are among the least digitized and automated industries, but technology is making inroads.

However, much like the VHS / Betamax format war in the 1980’s, one of the challenges for the project manager in the engineering world is that there are many ways of using technology to do the same thing. Each client has a preferred data platform that they request their suppliers use, leading to countless platforms and the tendency to build each project individually, reducing efficiency and speed. This not only reduces the effectiveness of that project at start-up but prevents ongoing evolution of the platform to create a template incorporating the lessons learned from earlier projects. The project manager not only has to re-invent the wheel each time to suit each project and client but needs to be agile and flexible as he or she moves from project to project, each with its own quirks. Combine this with bureaucracy and perhaps a requirement to maintain paper copies of information as well the electronic version and platforms can easily become more of a hindrance than a help.

We must take care with how we implement new systems and temper our expectations. I have been a project manager for more than 25 years and remember the implementation of BIM into engineering design when projects moved from 2D CAD to 3D BIM. I remember the training sessions and the promise of how the technology was going to change our lives and make everything “better.” I remember the excitement and later, I remember the daily phone calls from experienced engineers struggling to meet dates trying to use a system very different from the one they had used for 20 years or more. Experience has taught me that you only ever get 50 percent of what is promised with any new system—unfortunately you don’t know at the beginning which 50 percent will be delivered and which 50 percent is never going to happen. This leads to conservatism in embracing new technology as projects don’t have the time and money to allow for dealing with these types of issues.

Being a project manager is often described as the “last great human activity,” for it is impossible for a machine to replicate what a project manger does. A great project manager deals with people with all their foibles and complexities. A great project relies upon a huge number of people to work toward a common goal, even when their individual needs may be contrary to each other, and a project manager pulls of this together. A project manager is as much a problem solver, guide, counsellor, and protector as a leader.

For project managers to meet the demands of today’s projects, they need technology and automation that will help them with repetitive tasks in order to free up their time, and their team’s time, for more complex and challenging demands of the job. Project managers need to be able to concentrate on the people that they lead and work for and not the technology that they use as tools.

So my challenge to CIOs and to my technical friends is this—remember that projects are a function of human activity and help us by giving us the tools that we need to succeed. Focus on what can be automated but remember that project delivery experts are the ones who do this for a living. Help us understand the great systems that are available but don’t force ones on us that we don’t think we need. Listen when we complain; sometimes we will just be complaining because we don’t like change but sometimes we will have a point. Acknowledge that there are just some tasks that need a human touch.

I’m still waiting for that other 50 percent, by the way.

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