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Virtual PMOs expand and improve on project management resources

Companies with limited resources and staff are now using virtual PMOs to improve project management skills and processes across the business.

A lack of dedicated project management resources shouldn't hinder your ability to implement successful project management methodologies. With limited resources and a lack of dedicated staff, one company implemented a virtual project management office (PMO) to help deliver a broad set of project skills across the organization, provide consistent value to the business and drive project accountability through functional lines rather than a more centralized group.

More than a year ago, Chris Wire, senior director of business applications at Xilinx Inc., and his IT organization knew that something had to be done to streamline their project management methodologies and processes. With the number of people involved in project processes and IT implementations growing, they recognized a need to be more efficient. In discussions with his boss, the CIO of the San Jose, Calif.-based semiconductor company, Wire also realized they weren't ready to take the next step in the PMO evolution -- which was to implement a more centralized and control-based project management office.

Wire reviewed a number of project management models and selected a virtual PMO. It's considered virtual because it isn't a dedicated full-time role for any one person in the organization.

The role of the virtual PMO is "really to focus on methodology and getting a broader group of people up to speed in terms of training and how to run projects in a consistent way," Wire said. "The virtual PMO really isn't tied to the tools we use; it is more of a 'lite' approach to getting the benefits of a true, full-time PMO."

Still, a number of vendors market products for a virtual project office with templates, workflows and document repositories. "Consistent tools are critical to the success of a virtual PMO," said Margo S. Visitacion, a vice president at Forrester Research Inc.

Collaboration tools such as Microsoft SharePoint are key to the success of PMO initiatives in a company of any size, she said. She also suggests project portfolio management tools for companies using either a virtual PMO or a formal PMO to standardize demand management and create a central location to store data, project request forms, standard reporting mechanisms and areas for collaboration.

"No matter what the tool, you've got to have a standard in place with a methodized tool set," Visitacion added.

At Xilinx, Wire uses Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Mercury midcost solution to manage the flow of projects in his organization, including approvals, workflow and release management. The solution also acts as a record keeper at Xilinx for all official project records from a Sarbanes-Oxley Act standpoint. "We had this solution already in place and so it was natural to build on it and it serves us well as a fairly light footprint tool," Wire said.

HP/Mercury also has extensive portfolio management tools, but Wire's group is currently focusing on projects with aggregate portfolio reporting capabilities. His IT organization also uses Microsoft's SharePoint extensively for collaboration and as a workplace and document repository for projects and support for working teams.

Developing project management skills

Aside from the obvious reasons for selecting a virtual PMO strategy, including limited staff resources, the inability to dedicate multiple full-time people and the need to tap into numerous people's expertise for improvement efforts, the main reason Wire went with this format was that he realized the importance of developing project management skills across the organization.

During the past 10 years, Xilinx's IT organization has shifted much of its focus away from development and more toward implementing standard packages. With more implementations, Wire said he felt it was critical for members of his group to improve their project management skills vs. development and technology delivery skills.

We chose to develop a broad set of project skills across everyone in our organization on the belief that project management is everyone's business.

Chris Wire, senior director of business applications, Xilinx Inc.

Moreover, prior problems, including inconsistency with project delivery, highlighted that need. While some projects sailed through their implementations with minor issues, others underwent successive reworks.

"The business was engaging with us on a project and then having to relearn how to do another project because of different tools and templates being used by various project owners," Wire said. "So not only was our delivery lumpy, but we were inconsistent in how we delivered on projects to the business.

"We chose to develop a broad set of project skills across everyone in our organization on the belief that project management is everyone's business, and we drive accountability through functional lines rather than in a more centralized fashion," Wire said. Some senior full-time project managers report functionally to the main IT domains of applications and infrastructure, for example.

"As the apps head, I have three senior project managers on my staff that each manage an enterprise-level project ($1M+), and my staff members would have project managers on their teams that manage smaller efforts," Wire said. With the virtual PMO in place, Wire said he expects his senior project managers to contribute more substantially to the newly organized project management methodology.

Since the implementation of the virtual PMO, efficiency and the ability to execute cleanly have improved significantly at Xilinx, Wire said.

"So far the results have been good in terms of lifting the group's overall project competency, and we have good acceptance across IT and the business groups we serve," Wire said.

While virtual PMOs are of growing interest, most organizations are in the discussion vs. adoption stages, according to Visitacion. The virtual PMO model was "born out of necessity; if it works out to be effective and efficient, it'll stay," she said. The verdict is not in yet on the potential cost benefits of using a virtual PMO, but one thing is clear: No matter what type of PMO model a CIO uses, you need to be clear about ownership, governance and processes, she said.

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