There have been many changes to, and pressures on, project management over the years. Digital technologies have been there every step of the way to help us operate quicker, leaner, more collaboratively, and above all, with unmatched productivity.
We don't need to tell you how dramatically the Internet of Things is going to change the professional, industrial and personal landscape. But understanding how it's going to change the day-to-day experience of being a project manager might take some unpacking.
We're speaking somewhat broadly here, but all that follows is readily applicable to a host of industries — including software development, engineering, product development, construction, product handling and many, many other areas.
Why IoT? Why Now?
Why use IoT? For a start, because everybody else is starting to use it. According to Gartner, by the time you read this, there will probably be more than 8.3 billion individual objects connected to the internet. By 2020, according to that same research, businesses alone will be operating 7.5 billion IoT devices merely in the course of doing business.
You might dismiss "IoT" as something the future needs to worry about, but it's clear it's earned its place in the greater business world thanks to the efficiencies it delivers. Here's a look at a few of them and what they mean for the modern project manager.
1. Redefines the Project Manger's Workload in the 'Connected Workplace'
Breakthroughs in IoT technology have given us truly connected workplaces. Whether you're involved with revising and testing software, using computer-driven machining equipment or overseeing a traditional conveyor-driven assembly line or material handling operation, all of these processes are going to be touched in some way by IoT technology. Using sensors and connected equipment, we can gather more detailed and more granular data than ever about what's happening on our warehouse and shop floors.
As project managers, the first significant effect of this technology making its way into our workplaces is that many of the processes you had to study yourself, for efficiency and productivity, will now provide plottable data points of their own by merely being in operation. Project managers will have a web of interconnected machines, computers and even wearables at their disposal so their decisions can be even more incisive and time-sensitive than ever.
2. Reduces the Work Required to Gather Reporting and Other Data
Part of any IT project manager's responsibilities is gathering status reports on each of the machines — mobile and desktop — the department uses. But without a connected and unified solution, compiling these reports could be a days-long or even weeks-long endeavor. Not so anymore. With IoT, IT and SaaS project managers have nearly instant access to condition reports on servers, databases, storage arrays and every other piece of hardware they need to oversee.
For equipment operators and project managers who specialize in the movement of physical freight, gathering reports might mean inspecting individual pieces of equipment on a regular basis to prevent failure. But the arrival of the IoT onto the warehouse floor means many of the powered machines you rely on daily will be able to alert you when a failure is approaching or when scheduled maintenance is due.
None of this is going to replace human intuition or proper preventative measures, but it does mean lots of the busywork you've come to associate with pulling diagnostics and maintenance information or crash logs will soon be a thing of the past.
3. Greater Expectations of (and Tools for) Collaboration
But even if the IoT provides lots of actionable data from the many stages of your projects, one thing "soft skills" are still good for is managing the human element in all of this — namely, collaborating in such a way that the data your IoT investment is gathering is actually shareable and not going to waste.
Collaboration requires our data to be mobile, which is precisely what the IoT provides: a top-down look at every machine operating according to a management system or every device testing out the application you're developing. Gathering data from everywhere at once means critical information can be shared effortlessly and sometimes automatically.
In material handling, it lets vendors, shippers and partners contextualize and fine-tune their place in the broader supply chain. For software developers, it means a wider variety of testing conditions and easier rollout of new changes.
4. Raises the Stakes for Cyber Security
As the saying goes, you "don't want to become another statistic." And it's true — the IoT is already a hotbed for unscrupulous activity, including the infamous Dyn DDoS attack that targeted unsecured IoT devices specifically.
It falls on project managers to make sure the netwproorks being used are hardened against every known threat. That means regular security audits as part of your operating procedure. If you're using the IoT to accomplish the work you do, or you're deploying IoT technology for one of your IT clients, you're responsible for creating a house of cards — and its foundation is very much in your hands. Third-party security partners are plentiful and can help you with firewalls, penetration testing, password hygiene and more on a one-time or recurring basis.
5. Turns Project Managers Into Technologists
Technology is best when used sparingly and effectively. As a project manager, maybe you've dreaded the role higher technology, especially the IoT, are going to play in your daily responsibilities. Even if you're facing a learning curve yourself, it's worth remembering that others will see you as something of an unwitting spokesperson for IoT technology once the mainstream better understands what it brings to project management in every industry. You might be hesitant to jump in. Don't be.
Self-directed learning on these and other technologies is easier than ever thanks to online courses and training. And if you find yourself partnered with a SaaS vendor for a hosted IoT solution, there's a good chance they have resources and tutorials available to help you, as a manager, navigate the learning curve on behalf of your team, who will soon see you as a thought leader and resource on the subject.
6. Raises Stakeholder Expectations
All of this ability to gather data and all of the flexibility and expanded productivity it allows you will, like it or not, have an unexpected fifth consequence: higher expectations from stakeholders. With the IoT going mainstream, would-be business partners are more conversant than ever with the advantages — and they're holding their managers accountable for higher output even in the midst of unpredictable domestic and global economics.
It used to be that there was an air gap between stakeholders and "ground" operations, but that air gap has all but gone away. It doesn't take weeks at a time to produce numbers or compile a report. Often, your partners and stakeholders have access to the same data you do. But they don't necessarily have the context to go along with that data, nor the expertise required to act on it appropriately.
Because project managers are being held to higher standards, shorter deadlines and higher expectations, professional data analysis have emerged as a vitally important toolset in the business world. Even if your operation is wired to gather maximum data from every corner of your enterprise, making the most of it or communicating to stakeholders in a clear, relatable way about it, might mean bringing professional data analysts aboard, possibly even in a full-time capacity.
As technology moves into the very heart of modern commerce, you'll likely find your team in need of some help to make sense of it, at least at first.
It's Not the Future Anymore
The connected workplace is here, and it's changing how we work — whether we're undertaking some major IT project, surveying a city block for traffic patterns before a renovation breaks ground or piloting a brand-new product through the research and design phase through to prototyping. Each step in each of these projects requires an accumulation of data. The IoT delivers that and more. But you also need a trained eye to use that data fully.
To recap, no matter the work you do or the projects you shepherd to completion, it's going to pay — probably literally — to maintain a close familiarity with the available IoT solutions on the market and how they stand a chance of improving or disrupting the work you do. Is it going to force you to compete harder? Are your business partners or owners going to raise the stakes once they have better tools and more accurate reports? With any luck, you're a little better prepared now than you were a short time ago.
Nathan Sykes is the founder of Finding an Outlet, where he writes about the latest in all things business and technology.