When project managers and their teams are all robots

When project managers and their teams are all robots

One of the most gripped about and contentious topics in project management is how track and control those pesky human resources.  For us in the project management profession, we pride ourselves in the ability to create wonderfully structured and logically integrated schedules aligned with fully fleshed out and detailed scope and costs estimates.  Unfortunately, it also requires having actual people on your team to execute the work and that’s when it usually starts to break down.  This is because it’s notoriously difficult to track what your resources actually accomplished on your project, as you often times spend lots of time tracking them down and corralling  them in meetings to get the status of their tasks.  This on top of the fact that they are often pulled in other directions by operational needs and other competing projects not to mention all the distractions of workplace technology such as emails, instant messaging and personal use of computing and mobile devices all vying  against your project.

Interestingly (as well as ironically) enough, with all the burgeoning new technologies such as the increased development of mobile and even wearable devices with real-time tracking through GPS and other means, we may be heading into a new era of the ultimate means of developing a completely automated method of tracking those slippery resources.  As this post by Nicholas Carr titled “Frederick Taylor and the quantified self” points out:

Management researcher H. James Wilson reports in the Wall Street Journal, there is one area where self-tracking is beginning to be pursued with vigor: business operations. Some companies are outfitting employees with wearable computers and other self-tracking gadgets in order to “gather subtle data about how they move and act — and then use that information to help them do their jobs better.” There is, for example, the Hitachi Business Microscope, which office workers wear on a lanyard around their neck. “The device is packed with sensors that monitor things like how workers move and speak, as well as environmental factors like light and temperature. So, it can track where workers travel in an office, and recognize whom they’re talking to by communicating with other people’s badges. It can also measure how well they’re talking to them — by recording things like how often they make hand gestures and nod, and the energy level in their voice.” Other companies are developing Google Glass-style “smart glasses” to accomplish similar things.

So all these new technologies which were touted as the ultimate means of liberating mankind may in fact be the means by which all of our every moves, including even biological movements and functions and the environmental factors we are in, will be tracked, monitored and stored.  For goodness sakes as the Carr article outlines, companies like Hitachi are attempting to fit us with the equivalent of dog collars and Google with glasses so that they can see what we are seeing!  I guess the real question then is not when this is going to happen, but how quickly can I start using this to track my resources by use real-time data to hold them to their commitments and for those reluctant resources to be accountable for them… I’m being facetious here, but not entirely either and no doubt this raises some new concerns and questions on the future of work and how to track employee performance and productivity.


The most interesting (as well as the most ironic) section of Carr’s article, is where he notes the resurrection of Frederick Winslow Taylor in relation to this topic and how we are going back in time to fulfill his vision of using precise measurements to track employee productivity and performance in ways he would never have imaged:

A little more than a century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced “scientific management” to American factories. By meticulously tracking and measuring the physical movements of manufacturing workers as they went through their tasks, Taylor counseled, companies could determine the “one best way” to do any job and then enforce that protocol on all other workers. Through the systematic collection of data, industry could be optimized, operated as a perfectly calibrated machine. “In the past the man has been first,” declared Taylor; “in the future the system must be first.”

The goals and mechanics of the Quantified Self movement, when applied in business settings, not only bring back the ethic of Taylorism, but extend Taylorism’s reach into the white-collar workforce. The dream of perfect optimization reaches into the intimate realm of personal affiliation and conversation among colleagues. One thing that Taylor’s system aided was the mechanization of factory work. Once you had turned the jobs of human workers into numbers, it turned out, you also had a good template for replacing those workers with machines. It seems that the new Taylorism might accomplish something similar for knowledge work. It provides the specs for software applications that can take over the jobs of even highly educated professionals.

A pretty scary thought, but if the tracking of professionals does ever become fully automated (which is looks like it possibly could), then the same replacement could be done for project managers as well.  The same technologies and mechanisms used to track teams could be used to track the project manager as well by providing the specs for the software that could be used to replace them.  The question then becomes with each tracking and replacement of a knowledge worker, at what point does the tracking and replacing end?  With the automated system itself?

Now I’m reaching into the realm of science fiction, but like much of past science fiction at some point much of it actually becomes scientific fact.  I hope by then I’m retired and have cool robots to take care of me in my golden years!

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