What is a PMO and how to differentiate between PMOs?

What is a PMO? Is it a Project Management Office, Program Management Office, or something else? How to differentiate between the different types of PMOs? In this article, we are shedding some lights on the emerging (or growing trend) of something called PMO. This is the first article on PMOs and there will be more.

This is an old article that we are updating.

Emergence of PMO

With the advancement and wide-spread 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 to different people.

The reality is that not all PMOs are the same and … in this context: One Size Does Not Fit All. Let us explain.

First: what does the abbreviation PMO stand for?

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

  • In some countries, outside of project management, PMO stands for Prime Minister Office.

In the context of project management:

  • 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), and we have even seen PPMO for Project Portfolio Management Office.
  • In the context of this article to differentiate we will use PjMO, PgMO, PtMO, for a project, program, and portfolio, respectively.

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

Project Management Office or Program Management Office?

Therefore, 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.

For the rest of this article, we will use PMO to represent all types.

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.

The 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 main 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 to management; managing a program is quite different from managing a project.

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

The second area of confusion: Organizational

The second difference is related to the following: is the PMO established specifically for one project/program or is it for the 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 major or mega project. If this company (the provider of service) is managing (or helping a “client” manage) a major project or program and the PMO is dedicated to this one project (or program), then 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 use of the term PMO typically refers to an organizational PMO. The organization could be a department, a strategic business unit, or even at a higher level. In these various cases, the PMO is for the whole ‘organization’. In other words, this PMO is the Project Management Function within the organization and is permanent; until further notice.

Are all organizational PMO the same?

Once again NO, and we are back to what we said earlier, there is no common definition or agreement on what a PMO is. However, when the PMO is organizational, what most would agree 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.


The PMO, Project Management Office, is:

  • An organizational unit responsible for the function of project management within an organization; theoretically the same way human resources department is responsible for the HR function and finance department for the finance function.
  • It can be a program management office or a project management office; or both.
  • It is usually permanent organization, except in special situations as explained earlier.
  • It often reflects the environment that shapes it.

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

We prefer that each organization build its own PMO to best fit its specific 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?

How to distinguish between a PMO and OPM? Project Management Office

We will cover these topics in future articles.