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Program management literature, a comparison

Alan Stretton
April 7, 2011

Different people working in many diverse program management areas have different perceptions about the nature and application of program management.

There is no generally accepted classification of these diverse application areas. In 2004, Russell Archibald listed 10 primary categories, with some 36 secondary categories, and 16 tertiary categories.

In 2008, Japan’s framework on project and program management, P2M, listed 12 primary types of programs, with roughly 50 secondary case examples. These two listings are broadly comparable, and demonstrate that program management application areas are diverse, more than is generally acknowledged or discussed in the literature.

This diversity of program management application areas is reflected in a corresponding diversity in, and fragmentation of, the literature on program management. Most readers gain the majority of their information on program management from mainstream project management literature, but this is only a small part of the totality of the literature that discusses program management.

I have found papers and articles on program management in publications representing more than 24 different disciplines and specific interest areas. Some of these are voluminous, particularly in major application areas such as the US Federal Government’s Program Manager, the Acquisition Review Quarterly, and aerospace’s Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Others are found in publications of a wide variety of disciplines and avocations, and in journals concerned with the management of engineering, product innovation, facilities, R&D, public administration, bank systems, business finance, computer-related technologies, information technology, underwriting, automotive design and production, and others.

What is evident from this summary is there is no distinctively mainstream literature on program management. This literature is highly diverse and fragmented. Each application area focuses on its own particularities, and there is little cross-referencing between the application-specific literatures.

For reasons that are far from clear, discussions on program management in the mainstream Western project management literature focus heavily on organisational change programs, with more than 70 percent frequency on my counting. This bias is also evident in two of the most prominent publications on program management.

The widely referenced UK publication, Managing Successful Programmes (OGC, 2007) specifically concerns what it calls ‘transformational change’, as opposed to incremental organisational changes. It claims to be suitable also for political and societal change programs, and for some specification-led programs when appropriately modified, but this claim is not specifically supported in the body of the publication.

North America’s The Standard for Program Management (PMI, 2006) effectively claims to apply to most programs most of the time, but there are indications that it, too, is primarily concerned with organisational change programs, as is suggested by its definition of program benefit as: ‘An improvement in the running of an organisation…’

In contrast, Japan’s P2M 2008 coverage of program management remains biased towards ‘huge infrastructure and facilities’, although it does claim a wider applicability in its latest edition. While references to such major programs and projects are relatively rare in the Western project management literature, this magazine is an exception, in that it does give substantial attention to major programs from time to time.

Concluding, program management literature is very diverse and fragmented, and there do not appear to be any publications that give an effective overview of the whole program management spectrum.

Alan Stretton
Alan Stretton's decades-long career in project management includes a stint as chairman of the Standards Committee of the Project Management Institute, upgrading its PMBoK. He is a Life Fellow of the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM).
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