Project & Programme Management

What is a PMO?

Not sure on the difference between project management, programme management and portfolio management offices? Our guide breaks down the differences with all the information you need to know about PMOs.

At the highest level, a PMO is a business function with two primary aims:

  • To help businesses in the decision-making process around the projects and programmes they run, and;
  • To help businesses get better at running projects and programmes by supporting the increase of capability (that is, of people) required by the organisation to deliver projects and programmes more successfully.

The acronym ‘PMO’ typically refers to three main types of PMO. These are:

  • Project Management Office
  • Programme Management Office
  • Portfolio Management Office

These three names will be familiar to anyone who knows the P3O® qualification – P3O stands for Portfolio, Programme and Project (P3) Offices.

It would be easy to finish this article here, yet there is more to the PMO story than names!

Organisations typically have one or more different types of PMO in operation; they use different names for these and they often have very different roles and responsibilities.

At the House of PMO, ‘PMO’ is treated as a collective noun rather than an acronym, representing any individual, team or department that supports portfolio, programme, and project delivery within an organisation.

Let’s dig deeper into the world of PMO and uncover what PMO really is in organisations today.

We will start with P3O (the best-practice qualification from PeopleCert/AXELOS)  to give us a basic understanding.

P3O - The four different levels

We mentioned that there were three main types of PMO. These are:

  1. Project Management Office – a PMO which is supporting project delivery, there may be any number of these types of PMO based on the number and size of projects being delivered.
  2. Programme Management Office – a PMO which is supporting programme delivery, again there may be any number of these based on how many programmes are being run.
  3. Portfolio Management Office – a PMO supporting the running of a portfolio of programmes and projects. There tends to be just one of these, overseeing all the programme and project deliveries within the organisation.

In P3O, there is also one other type of PMO. This is called a Centre of Excellence (CoE). This PMO is not focused on delivery, it is focused on capability. The CoE is where standards, methods, processes, and training are created and maintained. What the CoE creates, the other PMOs (Portfolio, Programmes and Project PMOs) will use to ensure consistency in delivery.

In P3O, the term PMO is also used to describe the combination of PMOs in operation. For example, a large organisation may have one portfolio PMO, one CoE, with several programme level PMOs and project level PMOs. Collectively, all of these are known as the PMO function.

Organisations often give different names to each PMO so it is clearer which PMO is being referred to. For example, a Portfolio Office can sometimes be referred to as an Enterprise PMO (ePMO). This is because the Portfolio Office is overseeing all the change activity in the organisation (enterprise).

Programme level PMOs are often given the name most associated with the programme they are supporting – for example, the Transformation Programme Office (supporting a large transformation programme) or the Vaccine Rollout Programme Office (as used by the NHS). Programme level PMOs are also often referred to as the place where they sit in the organisation, for example, the IT Programme Office for the PMO in the IT department.

The same can be seen with Project Offices, especially large projects where the PMO takes on the name of the project.

So far we have covered the acronym, “PMO”, what it stands for and the 3 levels of PMO that exist.

Next, we will look at some different types of PMO, starting with the Project Management Institute (PMI)

The PMI Definitions

Within the PMI Body of Knowledge, a PMO can be one of three types:

  • Supportive PMO
  • Controlling PMO
  • Directive PMO

These definitions are more focused on the type of work the PMO carries out.

A supportive PMO is more of a secretariat function – supporting individual project managers and their teams, providing administrative support, completing templates, logs and registers.

A controlling PMO is the next step up from supportive. Project control activities see PMOs mandating the project delivery methods, assuring project delivery, providing frameworks, processes and tools which must be used. A controlling PMO will have a blend of PMO Analysts and specialists who focus on areas such as planning, risk management, assurance and benefits management.

Finally, there is the directive PMO, who has a larger degree of authority and responsibility for ensuring delivery standards are in place across the organisation. A directive PMO is more likely to be providing portfolio management services, strategy implementation guidance and be providing top-down control.

What does a PMO do?

Let’s return to the 2 primary aims we mentioned at the beginning. PMO has two primary aims – the first is to support the decision-making process around the projects and programmes an organisation runs. The second is to help businesses get better at running projects and programmes by supporting the increase of capability required by the organisation to deliver projects and programmes more successfully.

So how does a PMO do these two things?

Decision-Making Support

Let’s look at the decision-making process support they carry out.

There will be different levels of support they provide depending on the type of PMO they are.

A project management office, which is providing supportive services, will typically be helping to collate the project status reports and providing the information via a dashboard. The information from the dashboard is given to senior stakeholders and project sponsors (often presented at something called steering committees). This information is used directly in any decision-making.

At the other end of the spectrum, it may be a portfolio management office, which provides directive services. The PMO in this case will not only be collating data, but analysing it to draw out insights and provide commentary, advice and guidance on what the information is telling them. In many cases, this type of PMO may perform some scenario planning, giving different options on what this information is telling them and the actions that should be taken. This is still decision-making process support, just at a more authoritative level.

Increase in Capability

Increase in capability is all about ensuring the organisation has the right people in place at the right time to deliver.

Let’s look at two different types of PMO and how they support an increase in capability.

A programme management office which is providing control heavy services (think large construction projects or heavily regulated ones) requires that all the project delivery teams within the programme are performing regular risk management assessments according to the organisation’s standards. The PMO may be responsible for carrying out training, workshops and learning sessions to ensure people are knowledgeable and skilled at the right levels.

With a portfolio management office, the focus will be on creating the risk management assessment process in the first place, responsible for rolling it out across the organisation. They will have created the training materials and will be ultimately responsible for measurement to ensure effectiveness of the process.

What Else Does a PMO Do?

We have given just a small insight into what a PMO is and what it does within an organisation, against its main objectives of decision-making support and increasing capability.

Typically, PMOs will be providing services in any aspect of projects, programmes and portfolios. That may be support around the planning process; running workshops on benefits management; creating dashboards; prioritising projects in a portfolio; collating financial reports; taking meeting minutes; creating a business case template, the list goes on.

In our next blog, we’ll take a look at some of the typical roles you will find in a PMO and gain a greater understanding of what PMO practitioners do.

Written by

Lindsay Scott, Co-Founder of the House of PMO, a home for PMO professionals where they can develop themselves, support the development of others and contribute to the development of the PMO profession.

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