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Beware the dark side of the IT PMO

Ten minutes after filing a story on the virtues of an enterprise project management office, I got a call from a CIO I’d gotten to know over the years informing me that he had been fired. On a Friday afternoon. No explanations given, except that his position was being eliminated. The company in question is a well-known brand name. From what I heard, 2010 promises to be as challenging for this company as 2009, if not more so. IT is viewed as cost center; costs had to be cut. The powers that be went after the biggest salary.

One of the hallmarks of this CIO’s five-year tenure was his setting up a project management office (PMO), with the laudable aim of bringing order, transparency and business participation to IT projects. Given his starting point — IT run amok — it was a hard slog. By the time I profiled his work, however, a formal process — rather than the squeaky wheel — determined which IT projects got done and when.

I don’t know why the CIO got axed (not sure he does either), but his situation got me thinking about whether there is a dark side to PMOs.

If a CIO goes to the trouble of embedding IT in the business so that IT is no longer the mysterious dark art many business people see it as, is he engineering himself out of a job?

“Of course you are,” was the immediate response of the first employed CIO I asked, the head of IT for a big city government. But that is as it should be, he said. As cloud computing becomes the norm, a CIO’s main job will be to plot strategy and manage the various vendors. “There is no reason we should be building any of this stuff.”

His gloss on the matter? “The PMO does one thing very well, and it depends on your organization whether that is detrimental or positive: It exposes you. Everybody who has anything to do with the strategy of the company is in it. That means there are reports and documents, failures and recasts of projects, costs analyses. The thing about transparency is that it can either be a boon or a bust for you.”

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