Are all PMO equal?

What is a PMO?

Is it Project Management Office, Program Management Office, or something else?

In this article, we are shedding some lights on the growing trend) of something called PMO. This is the first article on PMOs, and there will be more.

Emergence of PMO

With the advancement and widespread acceptance of project management, the ‘PMO’ acronym has become highly recognized and quite popular term. Many organizations today have one form of a PMO or another. However, this term is still quite misunderstood, and these three letters could mean different things for different people.

The reality is that not all PMO are equal, which is OK since, in this context, One Size Does Not Fits All.

Let us explain.

First: what does the abbreviation PMO stand for?

To start, there is no agreement in the industry on one standard definition of what these three letters mean. Most often, different organizations use the term to mean various things, including but not limited to:

  • Project Management Office: this is the most commonly used term.
  • Program Management Office: this is the second most common definition
  • Portfolio Management Office: this is not very common … if the organization has a Portfolio Management Office they might refer to it as ePMO (‘e’ for enterprise) or cPMO (‘c’ for corporate)

In the context of this article to differentiate we will use PjMO, PgMO, PtMO, for project, program, and portfolio, respectively.

Further: we have also heard the term ‘PMO’ used to mean ‘PM Officer’, ‘PM Organization’, among other usage.

However, the term PMO most often refers to Program or Project Management Office. The main practical differences between these two uses are that a PgMO is considered more strategic with a focus on programs and program management whereas PjMO is more operational with the emphasis on managing single projects. As a result, PgMO typically reports at a higher level in the organization than a PjMO.

Second: are all PMO the same?

No, they are not! To explain the different types of PMO would require a book. What we will present here are two major areas of confusion in the use of the term. In the upcoming articles, we will discuss other points.

First area of confusion: Project or Program

As explained earlier, the differences start with whether the PMO is a PjMO, PgMO or PtMO. We also established that PtMO is not common, so that leaves us with PjMO or PgMO.

The primary distinction, in this case, is the definition of ‘program’.

A program consists of many projects, typically interrelated and linked to a business goal. Program management is about managing programs. This distinction is important since it leads to different approaches of management; managing a program is quite different from managing a project.

Then: the first difference is regarding project or program; is the focus of the PMO on managing projects or programs?

Second area of confusion: Duration

The second difference is related to the following: is the PMO temporary and established specifically for one project/program or is it permanent for organizational projects and programs? Let us explain:

  • Temporary – One Project/Program: What we mean here is often “clients” organizations appoint a project management company to help them manage a large, a mega project or a program. If this company (the provider of service) is managing (or helping a “client” manage) this project or program and the PMO is dedicated to this one project (or program) … then PMO is temporary. In this case, the term PMO is another way to refer to a Project (or Program) Management Team (PMT). In this scenario, when the project/program finishes the organization will dissolve the PMO. In other words, the PMO is temporary.
  • Permanent – Organizational: The more traditional and globally recognized the use of the term PMO typically refers to an organizational PMO. The organization could be a department, strategic business unit, or even higher level. In these various cases, the PMO is for the whole ‘organization’. In other words, this PMO is not time-bound and is permanent.

Are all organizational PMO the same?

Once again NO, and we are back to what we said earlier, there is NO standard definition or agreement on what a PMO is. However, when the PMO is organizational, what most practitioners would agree on, is that the PMO is not for one project or program, but it is for all of the projects and programs within the organization.

In that regard, what is the role or function of the PMO?

This would vary, from one organization to another. However, this would be for another post.

How to distinguish between a PMO and OPM?Summary

The PMO is:

  • An organizational unit responsible for “something” an organization,
  • It can be a program management office or a project management office; or both,
  • It is usually permanent organization, except in particular situations as explained earlier, and
  • It often reflects the environment that shape it.

When it comes to PMO, one-size does not fit all, and this is perfectly OK.

We prefer that each organization build its PMO to fit best its particular needs and culture without losing sight of the purpose of the PMO and the strategic business objective behind implementing a PMO. The key is to close the gaps between expectations and requirements.

  • What do you think?
  • Do you have experience with different types of PMOs?
  • Does your organization have a PMO?
  • Can you share some learning from your perspective?



This initial version of this article was originally published in September 2012. It is updated and republished in June 2015.

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About Mounir Ajam

A Project Management thought leader, who believes that project management touches all people, in all aspects of life; personal and professional.Initiated and led the formation of SUKAD Corp to develop the Uruk PPM Platform.An advocate of real-world, practical and applied project management.Champion of adaptive project management, tailored methods, and organizational project management.Available anywhere in the world to advise executives and organizations on the strategic value of project management. Ready to help organizations build and sustain the Project Management Function and the capacity to lead projects successfully.