The Evolution of PMO Tools and Trends for the Future

By the time I started working in a PMO in the late Nineties, Microsoft Project was considered to be king by most organizations delivering IT and business change programs and projects. Although the construction, engineering, oil and gas firms were way more advanced with the likes of Primavera, other sectors were playing catch up. In fact I think they’re still playing catch up today.

Primavera is great if you’re running great big hulking projects with strong planning and control disciplines like earned value, but in most other businesses it’s like using a hammer to crack a nut.

So back to the days of working within a PMO where each project manager was using a standalone version of MS Project. It worked in the sense that it was a piece of software and project files could be saved, sent to the PMO and opened again! At a program level, there were decent attempts to hack a consolidated plan together.

Interestingly a lot of the time in a PMO in the late Nineties was spent, in what I can only describe as “cobbling” things together. Project plans were regularly exported into Excel with increasingly complex macros dreamt up and designed to pull the data out. One of the frequent requests was “senior managers don’t want to see Gantt charts, make the data simpler” which led to pretty slides in Powerpoint. I think many PMO people will recognize this scenario as it still happens today, 20 years on.

One of the tools that caught my eye back in the day was the magnetic project planning boards, they still exist today and are probably doing a good trade in the age of Agile and iterations and sprints.


There’s a lot to be said for having a visual representation up on the wall in a physical PMO project room but not so useful for virtual and dispersed PMOs of course. I see people are also getting inventive with Lego too.

Another Microsoft product was also a staple, MS Access. This was used to create in-house risk management assessment tools, document configuration, resource databases and extractions from other company software like timesheeting and finance data. All of these were created by the PMO team. In another life the PMO could roll up its sleeves and turn its hand to database design!

Project document storage areas were also another full time job for a project administrator. Setting up restricted access to folders on servers for entire project teams meant that PMO staff could also turn their hand to system administration too.

Things started to advance a little when company intranets became all the rage in the early Noughties. Now PMOs could publish standards, processes and templates in one area that project teams could easily access rather than relying on restricted access to storage areas. It was around this time that the first Sharepoint version came out along with the extended capability to MS Project and its server edition. Things started getting a little easier, but we were still a way off from using these gleaming and enticing enterprise offerings like ABT, Niku, Artemis and Planview.

With Sharepoint a big PMO headache could start to be solved. The whole checking in and checking out and version controlling of documentation was a huge time consuming task but at least now that could be automated. Together with Project Server and the whole collection of macro driven Excel reporting tools, the PMO was slowly becoming more efficient, yet the challenges of offering accurate and timely reporting across a whole portfolio of projects were stretching the PMO to breaking point.

The evolution of the PMO at this stage in the mid-Noughties could only mean one thing. Senior executives were hearing about the challenges as the same time as hearing about the Magic Quadrant. The first implementation of an enterprise tool was just around the corner and the PMO didn’t know what was about to hit it.

The Magic Quadrant was a result of research from Gartner. It still publishes its report each year and highlights which project management tools organizations might consider. The four parts that make up the quadrant are tools that are considered to be either leaders, challengers, niche players or visionaries.

For our PMO, supporting an increasingly large number of projects, and with more and more programs appearing, the first steps towards what is known today as portfolios, had begun. With it, the need for a solution that could schedule projects; store documentation, run timesheets; and provide an overall portfolio view of activity.

Although an enterprise tool was purchased, it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t a case of plugging it in and running with it from day one. Today implementation of enterprise tools is considered a project in itself. One which needs a good business case, a detailed plan, experienced people and a real understanding of the change management activities needed for users. In those days there was a certain level of naivety that the tool would work straight out of the box. The PMO were quickly overwhelmed by the animosity from users i.e., project managers who were used to using MS Project and saw no reason to change. After all, they were most interested in delivering their projects rather than worrying about the reporting requirements of the PMO.

In the end, this enterprise tool that was considered the holy grail of visibility in projects and programs, failed. Only the timesheeting part of the tool was still in use 12 months after the initial implementation date. The PMO was back to using MS Project and Excel as their primary tools. They had failed to seize the opportunity and it would be many more years later until they had the chance again.

Leaving that organization a short while later, it seems odd now looking back on that time and reflecting. The organization had a large program and project delivery department, running projects into the hundred millions, yet all the governance and controls in place still relied on tools which were archaic really. The PMO wanted to provide the “only version of the truth” when it came to project reporting, yet the use of so many different tools, running formulas and macros that could easily produce errors prevailed for so long.

It was only until relatively recently in the late Noughties that another advanced in technology – Software-as-a-Service or cloud based tools and apps – gave PMOs another option and another chance.

Not every PMO needs a large enterprise project management tool. That becomes clear when recent research shows that only 50% of organizations actually operate a Portfolio Office. That means there are 50% of other types of PMOs like the Project and Program Office that need a smaller solution.

It is these PMOs, which primarily operate in medium and smaller businesses or in larger businesses where silo working is rampant, who, when they are ready to move on from the usual tools of MS Project and Excel, are pursuing “consumer grade” solutions and shunning the larger “all singing all dancing” enterprise solutions.

With the explosion of social media and application development came a wide range of project management tools that were inexpensive, easy to implement and access and didn’t need to be part of the organization’s existing architecture and infrastructure.

Such tools are classed as “consumer grade” tools because by and large they don’t meet the corporation’s standards on performance, reliability and security. In other words, projects and programs need data management and improved collaboration options and PMOs are not prepared to wait until an, “enterprise grade” solution can be put in place again.

The consumer grade solutions range from document storage, using Dropbox instead of its enterprise grade alternative, Sharepoint. Internal messenging services such as Skype rather than the enterprise grade alternatives such as Saleforce’s Chatter and Microsoft’s Yammer.

An interesting culmination of this time is where consumer grade technologies meet SaaS project management tools. Tools like support the evolving PMO with enterprise level project management and ease of integration with other consumer-grade tools.

The Beginnings of New Trends

Innovative and progressive PMOs today are quick to find solutions that enable them to get the job done. They are also quick to put in place tools that users find intuitive, easily accessible from the tech people use every day like smartphones and tablets.

If the PMO is going to fail in implementing new tools, these consumer grade options means they can fail fast with minimal financial implication and disruption.

PMOs know that real time reporting is getting closer and closer. The PMO can now free up their time, which was once spent on chasing progress reports and updating spreadsheets, to press on with the activities that really make a difference to the organization. They have more time to check, analyze and challenge data; they are able to provide scenario and forecast planning based on accurate data and more advanced tools than they ever could with Excel; they can provide the data and information that senior executives really want, complete with visuals, that enable them to make better and informed decisions.

PMOs also want to put their stamp on whatever project management tool they go with. They will always want reports to look a certain way, a few tweaks and branding without the need for costly bespoke work. The tool needs to be flexible because ultimately the PMO has to be flexible in what it offers to the business too.

PMOs are finally seeing that the explosion in project management tools available in the last few years is what they’d been waiting for and it really is ‘kid in a candy shop’ time. Yet PMOs are like elephants, they have long memories and previous failed tool implementations still irk. The trend at the moment is to shop around, try it out and pilot it without the huge upfront commitment, massive implementation schedule and a whole host of consultants needed to get the tool working.

PMOs today recognize that the lack of a decent PPM tool in their arsenal is ultimately holding them back from doing really great things in their objective to support an organization’s project and program management capability. This quote from George Herbert sums it up pretty well:

“Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.”

For the ultimate in flexibility, try Real-time dashboard reporting and advanced project management features are customizable by the PMO at every level of the tool. Plus ease of integration with over 400 other tools makes this solution the preferred platform by the likes of NASA, The United Nations, Volvo, Nike and more. Start your free 30-day trial today.

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