A Primer on Program Management
Program management is the science and practice of managing large private and public works projects. Typically, these involve complex engineering design and construction utilizing multiple contractors. The logistical issues making certain everything comes together at the right time, in the right quantity, with the right quality is one of the great challenges of these projects and becomes the major preoccupation of the program manager. Because the expenditure of public or private funds is involved, it is often necessary to engage an independent third party to represent and protect the interests of the owner.
Any complex project involves the interrelationships of numerous "players": designers, contractors, suppliers, regulators, unions, customers, the public, government officials, and the project owner, to name a few. To achieve the best result tor the least cost there invariably will be one optimal way of planning and implementing the work. Normally the optimal approach is not obvious on a complex, multiyear project.
In addition, changes can disrupt the otherwise orderly flow of the work a flood or other natural disaster, a shortage of a critical component or material, an accident, delays in funding, and so on.
There is also a logical sequence to performing the work, which ensures that it will be completed in a timey, cost-effective manner. For example, while certain activities must be performed in sequence (forms must be built before foundations can be poured), other activities can go on in parallel (structural steel can be fabricated off-site while foundations are being poured).
Several decades ago it was both time consuming and labor intensive to track the various activities of a major project. This effort was performed by "clerks of the work", who kept records. Anticipation of problems and corrective action depended heavily on the judgment and experience of a field construction superintendent. Often he or she made decisions based on partial or incorrect information, because that was all that was available.
This situation began to change with the advent of digital computers, which permitted the tracking of complex operations through large databases. Then someone realized that the database could incorporate logic and that the computer could be used to simulate the various activities of a project to see how tong one approach might take compared to another. With the recent advances in inexpensive and powerful microcomputers it is now possible to locate this tool at the job site, where the program manager uses it and other techniques to keep complex undertakings on track.
The main benefit to the owner is that he or she has an independent professional support staff to assist and oversee complex projects. Since the program manager is not normally involved in design or construction, he or she is able to represent the owner's interests without bias. This system usually improves coordination, reduces the cost of the construction, saves time, and reduces claims that might otherwise arise.