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How Can Project Managers Prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

Faculty Insights Industry Advice Management

Chris Bolick, assistant teaching professor in Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Project Management program, provides four leadership skills every project manager should develop to succeed in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


Over the past decade, humans and technology have connected in ways that were once perceived as science fiction. The advent of artificial intelligence has only accelerated that connection, offering new opportunities like never before. In his book Robot-Proof, Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun notes that this rapid increase in data accessibility, human-robotic interaction, and advanced technological development has ushered in a new era—one that is disrupting business, creating new and innovative industries, and altering the labor market.

Digital Transformation and Project Management

This new era, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), has initiated a digital transformation across industries, including the project management profession. In order to achieve competitive advantages, organizations must now utilize technology and data for strategy development, project execution, and delivery.

Digital transformation is not a new theory; it’s not about companies patching legacy systems or modifying processes and procedures while keeping an analog plan-build-run culture in place. It’s about project managers recognizing the need for innovation and utilizing a framework to view operational processes and business models in progressive ways. Digital transformation is about incorporating technology and data to identify and implement superior strategic and tactical methods, maximizing human well-being, and embracing agile principles across all facets of an organization. It’s about innovation and opportunities, and leaders within organizations emphasizing value delivery and customer experiences in the services and products provided.

So how does the project manager embrace digital transformation and the subsequent transformation in leadership? There is not a standard toolkit to utilize to answer every question that will be faced. Keeping this in mind, here are four key competencies that combine leadership skills and approaches that project managers can utilize to drive industry innovation through digital transformation.


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Four Ways Project Managers Can Embrace Digital Transformation

1. Promote Change Agility

First, leaders must move beyond the mindset that digital transformation is just about increased computing power. We have surpassed the first computer revolution and are now well into the second in which technological capabilities, internal resources, and our customers’ experiences are changing.

Despite the major changes occurring with digital transformation, the key aspects of leadership remain the same. Leaders must rely on foundational principles to successfully navigate within 4IR. The adaptive project manager will have a greater role in identifying value, facilitating creativity, and enabiling flexibility while serving as change agents and influencing multi-disciplinary teams across the organization.

2. Evolve Intellectual Capacity

Second, digital transformation will require an evolution in leadership skills. Research shows that by 2020, two of the top ten leadership skills will be cognitive flexibility and emotional intelligence. In his book, Aoun says that including these two traits among the list of most essential skills for 2020 emphasizes the importance that will soon be placed on our cognitive capacities and evolved leadership capabilities. Leaders that are able to apply a range of necessary professional proficiencies such as emotional intelligence and cultural awareness while demonstrating key technical skills such as critical thinking and analysis will be at the forefront of digital transformation and 4IR.

3. Embrace Resource Dynamics

Third, project managers must embrace the idea that project teams executing strategy will no longer solely be comprised of traditional resources. Teams may be comprised of existing and new talent, be cross-functional, and may utilize advanced robotics and computing systems. Project managers will need to create teams with a balance of native knowledge and new experiences. Additionally, emphasis will be on an open mindset, cognitive capacities, and emotional intelligence. These qualities will be highly sought after by employers in order to efficiently transition the available resources into a digitized workforce.

4. Refine Emotional Intelligence

Finally, 4IR will require leaders to balance innovation and chaos with the stability of organizational processes. As more and more organizations embrace artificial intelligence and advanced robotics, leadership will become less about people with titles and more about organic collaborative processes. This new dynamic will often require project management and leadership roles to overlap and draw on shared knowledge to mitigate organizational policies. The importance of relationships and emotional intelligence will continue to be critical for project managers as we facilitate engagement, motivation, and overall enthusiasm within organizations.

Are You Ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?  

Embracing digital transformation and the advancement in leadership is about understanding and visualizing new experiences, products, and services that will be provided to the customer. It is about understanding the dynamics behind your company culture, accepting digital dexterity, and moving beyond inefficient silos. The difference now is that project managers will need to use these competencies in a complex, more artificially intelligent way.

Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Project Management curriculum incorporates the technical, professional, and strategic leadership skills necessary to manage projects successfully in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To learn more about improving your project management skills to advance your career in this new era, download our free guide below.


Download Our Free Guide to Breaking Into Project Management