Although only a semantic difference for some, industry in general and particularly information technology (IT) companies differentiate program and project management based on the scope of responsibility, time frame of activities, and alignment with strategic versus tactical objectives. Program management is enduring and closely tied to the organization’s strategic goals. Projects are grouped together under programs and usually have a short duration and a specific outcome.
Differentiating program management from project management has received favor over the last decade as convenient shorthand to indicate differences in priorities and responsibilities within an organization that has multiple projects. Acceptance of the difference is not universal and some organizations still use the terms interchangeably.
According to IBM Development Works, “project management is concerned with the dynamic allocation, utilization, and direction of resources (both human and technical) [and] with time—in relation to both individual efforts and product delivery schedule… .” Program managers, on the other hand, are involved in “setting and reviewing objectives, coordinating activities across projects, and overseeing the integration and reuse of interim work products and results.”
Projects have a defined beginning and end date and are focused on delivering a product built to specifications within a short time period. Programs endure longer with broader areas of responsibility and interest.
A project manager is concerned with the scope of effort, the budget to accomplish the tasks and achieve the desired outcome, and the time available to succeed. Project managers are directly invested in resource allocation for specific tasks. Program managers will be concerned about resource availability across multiple projects.
Projects are based on detailed plans, designs and schedules to reach a one-time objective. Programs are usually broader in scope and are driven by goals that are aligned with strategic thinking such as improving efficiency, increasing market share, or creating a new product line. Organization-wide efforts to change style, behaviors or focus fall within the realm of program management.
Another general difference is that projects are focused on reaching objectives within established budgets while programs are evaluated against return on investment. Program managers are often responsible for multiple projects.
Although a bit broad, one could think of a project manager as being responsible for a deliverable product and a program manager for a process.
Individuals need to understand the criterion upon which their job performance is evaluated. If you are expected to get a project correctly done, on time and on budget, then you have clear guidance in establishing your priorities. If, on the other hand, your performance is measured within the context of over-all return on investment, you may make different decisions, trade-off among projects for key resources, and you will have different priorities for expending your time and effort.
Dividing the responsibility for projects and programs also helps individuals up and down the management chain to know the most appropriate person to go to for conflict resolution and additional resources.
Barbara Brown has been a freelance writer since 2006. She worked 10 years performing psychological testing before moving into information research. She worked as a knowledge management specialist and project manager in defense and health research. She is studying to be a master gardener and has a master's degree in psychology from Southern Methodist University.