Understanding the program management office

Gary Yorke
April 6, 2011

What is the difference between a project and program management office? The answer is in the nature of programs and projects.

The UK’s Office of Government Commerce defines each as follows:

  • Program: A temporary organisational structure created to oversee the implementation of a set of related projects and activities.
  • Project: A temporary organisation created to deliver one or more business products according to an agreed business case.

Hmm, that doesn’t really clarify things much. Maybe a better way of looking at it is to consider the deliverables of each. A project delivers outputs (or capabilities) and programs deliver outcomes (or benefits).

Or that programs are about doing the right things, and projects are about doing things right, although some would argue doing the right things is the role of the portfolio management office, if one exists.

So how does this impact on the roles, responsibilities and longevity of a program management office? Before I answer this I’m going to abbreviate the different PMOs to PtMO,PgMO and PjMO to save some space.

A PgMO will have a more strategic perspective, providing guidance on the direction of projects within the program. A mechanism for tracking benefits is needed, as these usually begin to be realised during the program and the project or program managers are often long gone before any benefits are realised.

Controlling multiple projects requires resource management, including capacity and forward planning of resource use. Combined with planning, scheduling and tracking, PgMOs are ideally placed to report on the performance of programs and projects.

Given the more strategic nature of PgMOs, monitoring and reporting plays an important role stakeholder management, especially when dealing with senior management. As these hold the budget, it is well worth keeping in favour with them and adopt their language and communication preferences: being busy people they do prefer graphs, charts and diagrams to long documents.

Governance of programs also gives the opportunity to support the business with systemic or organisational risk management. Projects can have limited visibility of overall risk and decisions made at that level can have an enormous impact on the rest of the business.

An example is US confectionery company Hershey reporting a 19% drop in earning in 1999 when implementing new ERP, CRM and logistics systems led to problems delivering orders in time for Halloween and the lead up to Christmas.

Another aspect of governance is the ensuring projects are reviewed against previous lessons learnt. Most projects today conduct a review when closing off but the results are often filed away and, without a PgMO to maintain a repository, might not be easily available to the project or program manager on the next project.

Even when they are available, the context might have been lost. So the custodianship of knowledge, methodologies and competencies is another role of PgMOs.

Together, these roles and responsibilities tend to give PgMOs a longer lifespan than a PjMO, which might last for the duration of a project or series of projects.

So, in summary, a PgMO provides an important bridge between organisational strategy and implementation of projects. Working more closely with business users breaks down some of the problems with communications and provides visibility of issues and risks across a program.

Author avatar
Gary Yorke
Gary Yorke is a senior consultant at MetaPM and chair of the PMO special interest group for the Victoria Chapter of the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM).
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