What is a Portfolio Office?

If you work in a large-ish company with many projects and project managers, you may find that you have a Portfolio Office. Typically, this is a department or team that sits alongside the work on projects. The people there don’t always directly manage projects, but they can be really helpful to you in your work as a project manager. Portfolio Offices in their current guise haven’t been around in the industry that long and they can be a bit of a mystery. So what does a Portfolio Office actually do? Let’s start with looking at portfolio management, which is essentially what the Portfolio Office team do on a daily basis.

Project Portfolio Management Explained

A portfolio is all the work a company does involving changes and investment that bring the company closer to achieving its strategic objectives. That includes projects, programs and some business-as-usual work.

Portfolio management is the work involved in pulling all of that together so that senior managers have an overall view of everything the company is doing. That helps them make better strategic decisions about things like where to invest company funds for the best return, what projects to bring forward and which to cancel and so on.

As well as providing information for decision making, project portfolio management can also be very practical. The team can help with managing the resource pool and checking that each project has the people and other resources it needs. Resources can be prioritized by looking at the entirety of the work a company is doing. Risks can be reviewed at a company level, so while a small risk on one project may not seem very important, when taken in conjunction with other risks from elsewhere in the business it could become very significant. Portfolio management can identify these areas.

In short, portfolio management is a way to collect all the information about change, risk, issues, benefits, budgets and resources so that all the company’s change initiatives can be assessed by looking at the overall picture.

The Role of a Portfolio Office

A Portfolio Office is the department that makes all this happen. They provide all the information to help with that strategic decision making. You may have one Portfolio Office, or several in a ‘hub and spoke’ configuration, which is particularly useful in global organizations as they can then provide central and local services.

You will also hear Portfolio Offices called different things: yours might be a Centre of Excellence, a Business Planning Unit or some other name.

Whatever it is called, its key role is to ensure that the right people have the right information to make sure that the company is investing time and money in the right things. They also look at what the company can do better, such as improving the time it takes to run key processes. Another role is to look at how to stop doing the wrong things by improving things like project assessment so that pointless projects get stopped before they take up too much energy.

How a Portfolio Office can Help

From the outside, a Portfolio Office can seem like adepartment that just produces a lot of reports. This is one of the reasons that companies close down their Portfolio Offices, as it can be hard to see the benefits of what they are doing. However, the portfolio management team can be a real help to you as a project manager, so if you do have a Portfolio Office, find out what services they can offer you as each organization will be different. Some of the things that the team can help with include:

  • Making sure you get the right resources for your project.
  • Providing standard templates for documents so you don’t have to create them from scratch.
  • Managing the project management software tool and providing training where required.
  • Managing timesheets and tracking effort across a number of projects.
  • Providing an assurance function as a ‘critical friend’ so that you can check you are on the right track with your project.
  • Pointing out and managing dependencies between projects.
  • Monitoring progress against key milestones and warning you when you are going off track.
  • Helping to track project benefits.
  • Delivering training or organizing external training courses for you and your project team.

It is important to point out that a Portfolio Office won’t make decisions – that’s the role of the senior managers. It also won’t carry out the actions as a result of the decisions – that’s your job. The portfolio management team will advise, provide information and recommendations and assist where they can but really they are there to offer information that supports decision making and the outcomes.

What if I Don’t Have a Portfolio Office?

If you don’t have an enterprise Portfolio Office in yourcompany you may have a smaller unit serving your department or division. This could be a couple of people or just a single person. Some of the tasks and reporting carried out by the Portfolio Office could be done in your company by a project co-ordinator or an administrator. Your manager, or whoever manages the project managers, could be the one providing a lot of the decision-support information to the senior management team.

Of course, some companies will choose not to manage their projects and programs with the help of a Portfolio Office. This could be because they are too small and it isn’t necessary to have one, they don’t see the value, or because they do not yet have mature enough project management processes to get the benefit from a central function aimed at improving project selection and delivery. If you don’t have a Portfolio Office in your company, don’t worry. Talk to your line manager about getting the support you need for your projects such as resources, software and training. Talk to your colleagues about the documents and templates they use, and work together to create an online repository of team information that you can share. Work with the other project managers in your area to ensure that you identify dependencies between projects and manage conflicts when you need the same resources.

A Portfolio Office is a really valuable asset to a mature organization, so if you have one in your company, make sure that you know what it does and how it can help you deliver your projects more effectively!

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