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PMOs in Asia: The New Frontier

Alicia Aitken
March 15, 2011

Project management is moving through Asia with the speed and tenacity of a raging bushfire. I have recently been working my way through Singapore, Hong Kong and Mainland China talking with organisations from several different industries about their PMOs and their attitudes towards project management in general. The vibe as I moved through Asia was electrifying. There is an excitement about this ‘new way of working’ that is inspiring even to the most embattled veterans of the well established projects as a way of doing business set of the West.

Project management emerged in the West through traditional industries such as engineering and construction, defence and aerospace, before being taken up by the non-traditional industries such as IT, banking and finance, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals. This historical progression followed a slow path of development from the project level processes of planning and estimating, followed by control processes and on to risk management.

Now as we feel confident that we understand the basics, even if we don’t always implement them to perfection, we’ve turned our attention to developing the concepts of program and portfolio management. The realisation that project management is the enabling capability for organisations to execute on strategy has led us to develop methods and tools for devolving corporate strategies into program and projects, as well as balancing the portfolio to meet the demands of a rapidly changing economic, social and political landscape. As a capstone to this thinking and development, we have created the concept of the PMO, be that project, program, project management or portfolio management office.

In contrast, many Asian PMOs have taken an almost opposite approach to developing organisational project management capability by establishing an integrated network of PMOs united at the corporate level by a single enterprise PMO. This corporate level PMO manages a network of smaller PMOs predominantly established at the country level rather than being organised by function or project.

In the main, Asian PMOs have opted for a top-down approach and have developed their portfolio management capability first, followed by an understanding of program management and project management governance with project governance and process left until last. This approach has left many organisations with an obvious gap in capability at the delivery level, with limited processes and support available at the coalface of projects. The solution? Buy in expertise.

Asia has historically used expatriate labour, bringing in expertise that did not already exist. They are doing so with project management by bringing in star performers who can carry a project at the delivery level on the back of their own expertise. This solution is not sustainable long term, however it is buying them enough time to develop their own capability, which can then be institutionalised to allow for homegrown project managers to be developed and supported.

One of the key benefits of the top-down approach is that project management emerges within an organisation with an intrinsic link to the top-level management and is positioned as a means of delivering on corporate strategy. This sense of value has many Asian organisations in an enviable position where management ‘gets it’ and they will hopefully avoid the all too familiar rollercoaster ride that PMOs in the West experience when project management comes in and out of favour with the latest wave of restructuring.

The role of the PMO at the enterprise level must include demonstrating the value of not only the PMO but project management more broadly to the organisation. In this area, Asia will lead the way!

Alicia Aitken
Alicia Aitken is CEO at Human Systems International and managing director at Project Performance Group.
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