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How Project Management Students Leverage AI to Work Smarter: A Closer Look at ITM 730

Tiffany Stronghart May 31, 2024
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Imagine a coworker who can take notes, manage projects, and analyze data quicker than anyone else in your organization. They also work 24/7 and never sleep.

If this sounds impossible, it isn’t–it’s AI.

AI can help make workplaces leaner and more efficient–but it can also present some challenges and raise questions as well, such as, do you treat your AI the same as you would a human team member? 

Students enrolled in the Master of Science in Information Technology Management program at the Universities of Wisconsin are working to answer this question and many others in a project management course for IT professionals.

Those enrolled in ITM 730: Agile and Traditional Project Management have had an opportunity to use AI in class for a couple years now in the form of simulations, says course instructor Adam Fornal, MBA. 

“AI learns their project management skills and their techniques,” Adam says. “And then it throws problems at them throughout the course of the project.”

There are seven simulations or scenarios that students run through based on topics they are learning about.

“It seems to be well-received. It’s more of a hands-on activity, which is a little different than the traditional just reading about things in a text.”

Students are presented with different issues as they navigate each simulation.

“Maybe a supplier went out of business, UPS stopped delivering, things like that along the way too. Or there was a manufacturing error and now everyone’s returning their product. Each week, they went through one of these different scenarios. And then, they kind of build off that each time. I have them run through it a few times too, just to see, if you make a different decision, how that will impact everything else,” Adam says.

In one simulation, students are overseeing a company that makes printers. More and more orders are coming in, but the factory goes on strike. The company gives in to employees’ demands, but now the factory is backed up with orders, and budgets are smaller because of the pay increases. Then, the company’s star developers announce they’re leaving, which challenges the students to backfill those employees.

“They have to make resource decisions, budget decisions, scheduling decisions. Do we put the factory on hold for a while to build up some savings? Do we speed up the factory because there’s another problem on the horizon? That’s where students have to use their skills. There isn’t always a textbook on how to run your business,” Adam notes.

Students are encouraged to use AI for things like forecasting orders, which mirrors what’s happening in the industry right now. AI is increasingly being used for administrative tasks, programming, and writing.

“AI is taking all your meeting notes. It’s doing scheduling for you. It’s doing management of the tasks. So a lot of the more administrative-type tasks that are associated with a project are handed over to an AI now. So, for example, if I asked you to write something up, the AI would follow up with you, make sure it got done, and then come back and notify me. It would summarize our meeting, take notes, and generally monitor everything.”

However, having AI on the team presents other challenges: Do you treat the AI differently than a person? Do you hold them accountable? If something happens, who are you going to fault? These are ethical questions Adam asks his students to discuss.

When it comes to using AI to write, there are also concerns about plagiarism, as well as misinformation or fake sources.

“Humans are likely going to rely on AI the way they began using Google and other search engines, but they need to understand there is bad information out there. [When it comes to writing], I’m still not sold on [using AI]. It gives you some good talking points for things you’re sending out, but I still don’t think it’s 100 percent where I would trust it just to send something on my behalf,” Adam says.

While students are becoming more aware of AI’s capabilities, they’re still learning about the risks that come with it in ITM 730. For example, if an AI is taking notes, and personal Identifiable Information (PII) is presented, how can you ensure that this data is stored somewhere secure?

“There’s a big lawsuit right now with Zoom that they’re collecting all this information. Who owns the data? Where is it going? How is it being used? I don’t think students fully understand the implications [yet],” Adam says. 

But as businesses worldwide face tighter budgets and faster turnaround times, AI can help.

“We have different resource issues that we face, like finding qualified people. Then working across different time zones. But the AI doesn’t sleep; it can work 24/7, and it can report back,” he says.

For example, AI helped expedite the development of the COVID-19 vaccine, which was created with a combination of AI and quantum computing. 

“AI came in and it tested which compounds worked, which ones didn’t. And then, they were using quantum computing, which is millions of times faster than our current computer systems, to process data. When you combine those two, they knew exactly what worked, what didn’t work. And that’s how they came up with that vaccine so quickly and with more accuracy.” 

Adam, who works at Northwestern Mutual in addition to teaching, says AI makes a huge impact on his work. “A lot of our AI tools that are now working on the insurance side as far as handling claims, processing insurance applications, things like that, in addition to our projects.”

Adam’s role as the Director of Technology Customer Success for Northwestern Mutual means he spends a lot of time trying to figure out how long people are going to live. Instead of reading medical books and looking at lifestyle data, he can use AI to analyze information quickly so he has the data points he needs to make smart decisions. 

“With all these new drugs coming out, our actuaries would be very hard-pressed to go through every new drug being tested on the market and reviewing those results. And is this going to increase your life? If so, how much? And whereas having AI, it can just go out and scan the entire internet and every publication and report back to us.”

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 Using AI also aligns with the shift toward data-driven decision making.  

“It’s not just a hunch anymore. They want to see hard data. You just need some of these tools to help with that,” Adam says.

Implementing AI to become leaner also changes how much – and what – human employees are doing. 

“Do we give them more to do? Do we assume they’re going to be reviewing [information] more? So it’s kind of changing the whole dynamic of workloads too. Everyone’s becoming more efficient. So how do we best manage them? That’s one of the things we’re touching on in the project management course, too.”

AI is here to stay, and it’s not here to replace you, Adam says, but you need to be aware of it and how it’s going to supplement your work–and most of all, how to make the best use of it.

“I think the biggest thing that students need to realize is that the AI also learns along with you. While it’s a resource now and it’s a tool, it’s constantly evolving and constantly improving. But right now, I saw in some places they were saying that it’s going to run out of data pretty soon. That’s going to be the new problem. It analyzes everything that there is. So then you have scenarios like that, where do we just make up stuff to feed more in? Or does it start to rely more on that generative AI, where it starts to develop its own and use that then, and how far do we want to take [it] there?”

While the future of AI may seem scary, there’s a lot of opportunity.

“I asked students, ‘Who’s your go to expert on AI?’ They said, ‘I don’t know.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s exactly it. There aren’t any. That’s where you can really step in, learn the technology, and be one of those early pioneers too because right now, it’s so new.’”

Are you interested in learning more about AI and project management? The 100 percent online UW Master of Science in IT Management might be right for you. Start by exploring the program’s curriculum or contacting an enrollment adviser. For more information, call 608-800-6762 or email learn@uwex.wisconsin.edu.

Programs: IT Management