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PMO or project assistant – an overview of the differences

Professional project work takes a lot of resources. Projects are associated with flat hierarchies, interdisciplinary cooperation and efficient communication channels. This is advantageous in times of economic and financial uncertainty – and an increasing number of companies are beginning to appreciate this fact. The rising relevance of project management can be seen in the increasing desire for professionalization and standardization. That’s why many companies want to introduce project management office software and/or hire a project assistant.

The terms “project assistant” and “PMO” have received a lot of attention lately thanks to the professionalization of projects in the last few years. Despite and perhaps because of this attention, there is no unified understanding of these activities. These terms are often used interchangeably in the discourse.

Although PMO and project assistants have several commonalities, we are talking about very different activities (German only) with different tasks. Mixing them up often leads to fatal consequences and frustrating results (German only). This post will look at all the different relevant issues and hopefully it will lead to a better understanding of the various kinds of project activities.

Project Management Office tasks – Multi-project management

The PMO is an organizational unit that is focused on the long run. It functions as a central point of intersection between the various projects in the company. Most importantly it is responsible for the structuring and development of project management methods in the company. There are many more possibilities for implementing PMOs such that, depending on the requirements, a diversity of tasks can be carried over onto them.

Project portfolio management

PMOs coordinate either a particular project portfolio or even the entire project dimension of the company. Depending on the size of the company several PMOs can be responsible for different project portfolios. In this way the PMO could be in charge of IT projects while another might manage investment projects.

Several international companies employ a few local PMOs who are not only responsible for their location. The individual PMOs will then mostly be coordinated by a master PMO.

Knowledge transfer

PMOs help you maintain an overview of the entire project landscape of the company. They structure and analyze information in all projects, programs and portfolios. It makes it possible to evaluate company processes better.

The PMO performs a unique new function through the structuring and analyzing of information in the organization. As “protectors of the project management knowledge” it interprets the “lessons learned” according to projects and knows about “best practices”. The PMO offers project participants the possibility to not only learn from their own mistakes but those of their peers as well.

Additionally, the PMO also has a bird’s eye view of the company’s resources and capacity and it makes decisions about the use of project resources according to pre-established prioritization criteria in order to avoid over-exertion among staff members.

Developing and implementing methods and processes

Uncomplicated and well-structured knowledge transfer generally is the result of standardizing the company’s methods and processes. The standardization of the methods and processes in the business’s projects accelerates the communication, simplifies the structure and makes uniform status reports possible. One of a PMO’s tasks is to continually be advancing standardization.

Training and coaching project staff

Generating knowledge and being able to offer it at a moment’s notice is just one side of the coin. If the project work in a company really is to be uniformly structured then the staff need to be prepared accordingly. Training and coaching the project staff is an important part of actively standardizing the project methods. And who better to do that than a PMO team?

Professionalizing the project business

A professionalization of the project will necessarily take place due to the newly won uniformity of methods and processes. Projects are no longer determined on an ad hoc basis, instead they are carried out in a thought-through and structured way. The insights gained through past experiences flow into future projects thanks to the PMO. The result is a much more professional way of dealing with new projects.

Keeping an ear open is important for PMOs and project assistants

Listening is important for PMOs as well as project assistants

The project assistant’s tasks – Individual project management

Whereas the PMO is responsible for all projects in a company a project assistant is assigned to a single project. In contrast to a PMO a project assistant is not a constant element in the project – they move on at the end of the project. The project assistant reports directly to the project manager and tries to make her job easier. The goal is for the project management to not have to worry about administrative and operative tasks.

The project assistant’s tasks can be divided into three parts:

Organizational function

From the very beginning the project assistant supports the project management in the project organization. That’s when responsibilities and roles are handed out. The project assistant is also responsible for the “who is who” and informs the team about organizational units that are integrated into the project.

The beginning of the project is often chaotic: staff spend time looking for software licenses, access codes and suitable hardware. In the absence of contact people this time can involve the wasting of hundreds of man hours. The project assistant prepares themselves in advance for these kinds of situations and functions as a competent contact person. They determine modes of communication and how they will be used. They structure the document storage system and archive the communication.

The project assistant is also responsible for the budget and resource controlling. They account for available human resources and develop requirements profiles for new staff. They also assist in planning costs and invoicing. They are empowered to make executive decisions about smaller expenses.

So a project assistant brings transparency in the costing of the project. That makes it possible for the project leadership to focus on more important tasks and allows them to clear their minds in order to make better decisions.

Communication and filters

The project assistant is the first port of call for project staff members. They take on requests and filter these according to priorities. They pass on only those issues that they cannot resolve themselves. They also communicate the project management’s decisions to the project staff members and make sure that they are implemented. The assistant’s communication function goes in both directions: decisions get carried out while project members’ urgent matters get attention as well.

If the project leadership so chooses the assistant can also take on the responsibility of organizing and moderating meetings. In this way the project management can focus on the content of the meeting.

Leadership

The project assistant may offer an important point of contact for project staff members. Their real task is to make sure things are moving along. As the leadership’s right hand they need to be a nag. And the assistant needs to have strong social skills in order to make sure the team does not lose access to the leadership.

The project assistant is therefore a mini leader. They may play a supportive role to the leadership but their job is very important for project staff members and other stakeholders as well.

Conclusion

PMOs and project assistants make project management more efficient and effective. The PMO continues to develop the company’s project methods and, as an external entity, it creates structure and unity in the project processes. The project assistant works in a single project and is very involved in these processes.

The tasks that serve the company’s goals best will depend on the corporation’s requirements. If you want to advance individual projects then a project assistant is a good bet. If you want to develop the general project landscape then a PMO should be your first choice. A combination of the two is also common: a PMO and a dedicated project assistant, at least in strategic, large and/or important projects.

Aaron Niemeyer is studying communication and is responsible for content related to project assistants at intelliExperts GmbH. He is interested in social processes in project management and loves presenting complex issues in an understandable way to a broad range of audiences.

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