Corporate Project Management
When I talk about PMO and project management, I'm talking about project management in medium to large organisations: what I call corporate project management. Why the distinction from plain 'project management'? Because the difference between the two is one of the main contributors to the problem of defining a PMO. Perhaps PMs should also be worried about this distinction, but it is less pressing for PMs, since they tend to be evaluated by individual delivery rather than team or unit delivery.
It is important to be clear about what we mean by project management since that is what needs to thrive in the project environment looked after by PMO. The official version of project management can be found in definitions and descriptions provided by various professional bodies, such as PMI and APM. Books by experts also provide various levels of definition and description as to what the job entails and how best to do it. They all describe the role of the PM (project or programme) as being fully accountable for delivery, and being the focal point for stakeholders. The official methods, standards and training all start from this assumption.
In contrast, corporate project management is in two minds about this, but not really wanting to admit it or discuss it. Staff are sent on PRINCE courses or whatever other methods are used, but the accountability for the project and the governance bodies that appear so clearly in the standards are in reality a tangled organisational mess. If it were only a question of levels of responsibility, as in job levels from junior to senior PM, or from sub-project to project to programme, that would not be a problem: the theory accounts for that. The real problem is that the project environment is fragmented according to the particular type of matrix management found in that organisation.
What happens in reality is that, for a single large project, you will see not just a PM at the different WBS levels of the project, but there will be PMs from more than one area of the same organisation, plus PMs from third parties (partners, suppliers, etc.). All of them are fully fledged Project Managers, paid and evaluated as such. The result is that instead of clear and crisp lines of accountability, you get the urgent need for dependency management.
PM disciplines entail that there should be a creative tension between the PM, rightly driven to deliver, and the governance needed to ensure that changes are not ultimately damaging. Because of this, an extra layer of complexity appears: as well as the multiple PMs that operate within the same project, there are also multiple, independent governance mechanisms that respond to departmental objectives and priorities, not to a single Steering Group. You can verify this most easily when you observe how long it takes to provide consolidated reports to the Board. This often takes longer than a month, not because PMs are slow writers using only crayons, but because the reports are checked and amalgamated and signed-off by an incredible number of isolated governance bodies and plain line managers. So what you get in the end may be called MI, but is certainly not management information, which is the insight required to make appropriate decisions.
As a consequence, you don't have a single point of accountability for each project, and you certainly don't have a uniform way of informing and satisfying stakeholders. So much for the theory.
Therefore, it is not helpful when thinking about the project environment that a PMO embodies and operates in to think that corporate project management has a lot to do with what the books and courses describe. As PMO, you have to know the standards very well, and it helps to be trained. However, what would really help to optimise your PMO would be to understand how your own particular project environment operates (all of it), and how to leverage the decision-making mechanisms and escalation routes that actually exist, rather than those which ought to exist.
Corporate project management, in a fragmented and semi-visible project environment must be our starting point in attempting to optimise your PMO for effective delivery of the outcomes that matter.