ISO 21500

did we need it? A consultant's point of view after a first experience


After ISO 10006 “Guidelines for Quality Management in Projects” that gives guidance on quality management in projects and the BS 6079-1 “Principles and Guidelines for the Management of Projects” that in the 2010 edition aims to draw attention to the management challenges in different project environments, in September 2012 ISO published the ISO 21500:2012 that provides guidance for project management and can be used by any type of organization and for any type of project, irrespective of complexity, size, or duration.

Did we need it? First, in the last decade companies often invested in their project managers' training and Project Management Professional (PMP) certifications without caring whether project managers were able to apply in their working environment what they learned; second, companies have often had difficulty in merging their internal quality systems with their project management practices. So, yes, we needed it. ISO 21500 helps companies to make their environment suitable for good project management practices and for project managers to be able to play their role.

The guidance has two faces, well represented by “Chapter 3: The Context” and “Chapter 4: The Project” and targets on one side senior managers and project sponsor, providing them with a better understanding of project management and helping them to give appropriate support; and on the other side project managers, project management teams, and project teams so that they have a common basis for project standards and practices.

This paper and presentation introduces the new ISO focusing on the benefits for both organizations and projects, brings attendees a real case of application for a major player in the global branded beverage industry, and illustrates a step-by-step tool that supports consulting activities on ISO 21500 guidance.

Company and Author Presentation

Nexen Business Consultants (; was founded under another name in 1995 by Gianni Fuolega, who initially managed it to serve the niche market of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems consulting inside the larger Italian banking market. In 2005 he met Engineering that was seeking a qualified partner to join with in the banking industry and since then Nexen has become the consulting company of Engineering. Actually, Engineering owns 95% of Nexen and Gianni Fuolega is our CEO.

Engineering ( is a 6,500-employee Italian company and €750Mil revenue. It is organized into directorates, which serve different industries. Inside Engineering Nexen acts as an agglomerate of more Competence Centres, each of them cultivates a specific competence providing both presale and delivery activities. Competences Nexen grows and takes care of our (a) Strategy and Financial Advisory; (b) Enterprise Governance and Risk Management frameworks and Accounting Systems; (c) Business Process Management & Reengineering; (d) Project Management & Change Management; and (e) IT Governance & Strategy. Nexen internal organization is by competence and each competence Business Unit is led by a Director who coordinates her/his team's efforts with other Business Units to serve our customers.

Focusing on change and project management competence Nexen, over the last seven years, has built a 35-person team specialized in the project management discipline and offers its customers different kind of services: (a) PMO teams supporting projects—traditional and agile; (b) PMO teams supporting divisions or directorates—traditional; (c) virtual PMO and project managers communities; (d) enterprise project portfolios initialization and management; (e) certified project managers; (f) consulting services in project and program management and in organizational project management; and (g) training services, preparation for PMP and PMI-ACP certifications.

Nexen Business Consultants has been listed in the PMI's Consultant Registry since beginning 2011.

Part I – The ISO 21500:2012 and the Context that Welcomed It

I1 – The Guidance: A Commented Overlook

As a consultant in project management, when you approach the guidance, there are a few characteristics you immediately notice. A list of them follows. They have not been ranked but only presented in the order you can observe them flipping through the page of the document for the first time.

Brand—The International Organization for Standardization logo dominates on the first page. The ISO logo instills trust, objectiveness, and effectiveness in readers and users.

Target—Target readership is stated in the Introduction. For experienced consultants in project management the three points clearly address groups of people they normally interface: (a) senior managers and project sponsors, (b) project managers and project team members, and (c) developers of national or organizational standards.

  Target Readership Reason of Interest Related Standards and Frameworks  

• senior managers

• project sponsors

To better understand the principles and practice of project management to facilitate providing appropriate support and guidance to their project managers and the project teams PMI Standard for Portfolio PMI OPM3® ITGI COBIT5 (for IT Organizations only)  

• project managers

• project team members

To have a common base of comparison of their project standards and practices with those of others PMI PMBOK® Guide PRINCE2  

• developers of organizational standards

To use in developing project management standards, which are consistent at a core level with those of others Both the above  

Terms and Definitions – Most relevant project management terms are listed in the beginning of the document before any other explanation. They do not cover all the terminology used for describing project management context and processes and include only very basic project management concepts. We found that terms and definitions kept in the beginning help to well communicate the scope of the document.

Project Management Context – The project management context is described in six full pages only.

Project manager context

Exhibit 1 – Project manager context.

The overview of project management concepts and their relationships open the clause 3. It shows how the organization strategy identifies the opportunities and the opportunities are evaluated and captured in the business case or other similar documents. It shows how selected opportunities can result in projects that provide deliverables, and how these deliverables can be used to realize benefits. The benefits can be an input again to organizational strategy.

Definition of project and project management are supplied together with the definition of opportunity, benefits and benefit realization analysis that bring to project initiation. At this point the guidance introduces project portfolio management and program management and helps identify the proper understanding of the two worlds of projects and operations.

The last part of clause 3 is about stakeholders: stakeholders and relationships among stakeholders are presented using an exhibit we were familiar with in the PMBOK® Guide – Third Edition. Then project management competencies are categorized into: (a) technical competencies for delivering projects in a structured way, including the project management processes defined in this standard; (b) behavioral competencies; and (c) contextual competencies. Project life cycle and phase descriptions close clause 3.

Project Management Processes – “This standard identifies the recommended project management processes to be used during a project as a whole, for individual phases or both. These project management processes are appropriate to projects in all organizations. Project managers, in conjunction with other project stakeholders, are advised to carefully consider the processes identified in clause 4.3 and apply them as a high-level guide to include those processes that are appropriate to the project and organizational needs” (Guidance, page 14). The project management processes are organized into process groups (Initiating, Planning, Implementing, Controlling, Closing), and subject groups (Integration, Stakeholder, Scope, Resource, Time, Cost, Risk, Quality, Procurement, Communication).

Process groups' interactions showing main inputs and outputs

Exhibit 2 – Process groups' interactions showing main inputs and outputs.

Interactions among the process groups within the boundaries of the project including the main inputs and outputs of processes within the process groups are shown in only one figure that in our opinion is very effective to illustrate project life cycle. “With the exception of the controlling process group, linkages between the various process groups are through individual constituent processes within each process group. While linkage is shown between the controlling process group and other process groups, the controlling process group may be considered self-standing because its processes are employed to control not only the overall project but also the individual process groups” (Guidance, page 17).

Annex A offers a final overview of interactions of the individual processes in each process group. “Not all process interactions are shown in Annex A figures. The arrows represent one logical sequence of processes and it is up to the organization, project manager, and/or project team to decide what processes are required and in what sequence the project will run. A recursion is possible from any process” (Guidance, page 39).

Exhibit 3 presents our point of view on clauses “3” and “4”.

Consultant point of view on clauses “3” and “4”

Exhibit 3 – Consultant point of view on clauses “3” and “4”.

I2 – The Guidance and Existing Standards

We believe it makes sense to try to analyze the context of already existing standards and frameworks the Guidance had to face and understand both overlapping and complementary characteristics. Exhibit 4 is a table where we compared the ISO 21500:2012 guidance with other publications.

ISO 21500:2012 guidance comparison with other publications

Exhibit 4 – ISO 21500:2012 guidance comparison with other publications.

Part II – A Real Case Where We Let ISO 21500 Guide Us

II1 – Real Case Presentation

In November 2012 Nexen got involved in project management consulting activities for an important spirits, wines, and soft drinks Italian Group and its Global IT Organization—below called “client” or generally “company”—and we launched a project we called “A new Project Management Methodology for Company: Assessment, Development and Training.” The Group is a 1,350 Million-Euro-sales global company marketing several spirits, wines, and soft drinks brands.

Client stated goals were:

  • Build a common project management terminology for Global IT
  • Define shared project management best practices
  • Formalize some common templates and tools to support shared best practices
  • Focus on project management training needs for the whole organization
  • Build a project management handbook for Global IT describing how the company IT deals with projects, programs, and project portfolio

During November 2012 - December 2012 Nexen led interviews with main Company Global IT Units and analyzed documentation to assess the degree of maturity of the organization against project management (portfolio, program, and project management). We discovered that at present both portfolio and project management processes are not stated and often projects follow single project managers and/or suppliers project management recommendations. We haven't considered program management yet; in fact there is no formal distinction between projects and programs (for now, we called programs large or cross functional projects).

Some suggestions were collected during the interviews that were found perfectly aligned with top management initial considerations:

  • Standardize project documents and repository documentation (in MS Sharepoint)
  • Standardize project management methodology, terminology and tools
  • Get more control at operations level (auditing and quality of the project)
  • Introduce a PMO Unit and/or an internal pool of project managers

Some considerations were done by Nexen Business Consultants assessors:

  • There is no evidence of the existence of an IT Projects Portfolio where all the information on projects are periodically collected and updated (all corporate IT projects, ICT Unit, ABA Unit).
  • The corporate IT capacity is not tracked. It means that there is no evidence of resources workload and no tools are there to evaluate new projects feasibility.

In January 2013 Nexen suggested to work on processes, roles, and responsibilities of the organization for IT projects and proposed some aspects of a partially new organization. Nexen worked on these themes with a guideline in mind that is keeping compliance with and seeking inspiration in the following international standards:

  • ISO 21500:2012 finally published in September 2012
  • New COBIT5 that integrates previous COBIT41 and VALIT20
  • PMI's PMBOK® Guide, PRINCE2 as needed

At the end of January, in the several meetings that we had, Nexen presented a hypothesis of organization, roles, processes, and KPIs inspired by both ISO 21500 and COBIT5.

II2 – Contents Delivered

The following sentences and references were selected from the ISO 21500:2012 guidance and from COBIT5 to drive our design activities. Exhibit 5 links the selected statements with changes they motivated.

ISO 21500:2012 guidance selected statements and changes they motivated

Exhibit 5 – ISO 21500:2012 guidance selected statements and changes they motivated.

From COBIT5 we got inspiration for the set of indicators we initially shaped and that are going to be reviewed and improved in the period of time dedicated to monitoring them.

KPIs set inspired by COBIT5

Exhibit 6 – KPIs set inspired by COBIT5.

II3 – Benefits of Working with the Support of the ISO Guidance

This third section of Part II is dedicated to describe the benefits that both consultants and clients may have when they decide to use the guidance ISO 21500:2012 as a tool to support their activities in project management consulting.

Easy access to the Main Project Management Concepts – The document is concise and easy to read—The document is about 45 pages, Annex A included. Statements are very clear and understandable also for people whose first language is not English. You should only refer to Clause 4 when you want to examine in depth a single project management process, main organizational project management concepts are concentrated in the first 20 pages well supported by less than 10 figures. Executives, managers, consultants, and methodologists with basic knowledge of organizational theories and project management have “easy access” the main project management concepts.

One Document, Different Target Readership – It doesn't matter whether you are an executive with a specific interest in getting orientation on portfolio management and organizational project management or a project manager and/or a PMO member who wants to learn more on how to organize the management of a project, at a high level of detail the document covers all these aspects

Tailoring Emphasized – Organizations and project managers must and can configure the methods they follow, tailoring the content of the guidance. In fact the ISO says: “The processes described in clause 4.3 need not be applied uniformly on all projects or all project phases. Therefore, the project manager should tailor the management processes for each project or project phase by determining what processes are appropriate and the degree of rigor to be applied for each process. This should be accomplished in collaboration with the project team and in accordance with the relevant organizational policies.”

Process Groups Maps – Annex A provides a depiction of the interactions of the individual processes in each process group identified in clause 4.2.1 mapped against the subject groups identified in clause 4.2.2. The five maps support the actions of tailoring. The five maps bring organizations and project managers clear basic flows for project management activities.

Project Management Life Cycle Linked With Main Project Management Deliverables – Guidance's Figure 6 -Process groups’ interactions showing main inputs and outputs brings readers the whole flow of the management of a project.

Part III – A Simple Tool

III1 – Tool Purposes

In our experience of consultants we noticed that in organizations some project management processes are more relevant than others for “good” management of projects. In other words, there is a “good” management of projects organizations must discover, different for any organization, and consultants should help in this research of the best configuration of project management efforts and activities for any specific situation.

Some organizations—for example vendors—need to invest their efforts on improving the clear definition of scope and communications with their customers, while other organizations—for example, public agencies—stress the control of risks and schedule to ensure management reaches the business goals they are in charge of. Other examples can be brought, but what we believe is that different organizations can assign different weights to project management processes frameworks.

First Purpose: The tool was thought first to interpret what an organization believes to be “good” management of projects given its culture, values, beliefs, and mission. The tool considers the 39 ISO 21500:2012 processes and invites the organization to assign its percentage of importance to each process. In order to get a double level of depth in evaluation, the sum of percentage of importance must make 100 for each process group: Initiating, Planning, Implementing, Controlling, and Closing.

Second Purpose: The tool describes a three-level model of evaluation to allow classifying how each process is implemented. “Level 0” means “not yet implemented,” “Level 1” means “basically implemented,” and “Level 2” means “advanced implemented.” This feature adds to ISO 21500:2012 a rough model of maturity.

The two features have been combined to measure a customized closeness of an organization to what the organization itself states to be “good” project management.

III2 – Tool Description

The tool has been developed with Microsoft Excel.

Initiating process group

Exhibit 7 – Initiating process group.

The tool mainly offers a collection of five sheets, one for each process group and a sheet for final evaluation.

The tool is designed to support the following steps:

First step: Assessment of What “Good” Project Management Is
Consultants support the organization in shaping what kind of project management they aim at and customize weights for each process in the process groups.

Second step: Assessment of Levels
Consultants support the organization in evaluating the level they are for each process in each process group.

Third step: Improvement Path Design
Consultants and organizations define the improvement steps they intend to follow.

Fourth step: Implementation
Consultants and organizations start the required change management actions to follow the improvement path.


We want to go back to the initial question we first asked: did we need this ISO Guidance? Our final answer is “yes, we did.” It gives easy access to main project management concepts through a concise and easy-to-read document linkable with the PMBOK® Guide and other PMI's standards. It's for both executives with a specific interest in getting orientation on portfolio management and organizational project management and project managers and/or PMO members. Its main characteristics are simplicity and completeness as a high-level guide.

But, to bring organizations true value, it should become—as we hope for—a basis for certification of organizations in project management, in order for companies to be able to measure their working environments and quality systems compliance with project management practices their project managers are trained on and wish to follow.


Project Management Institute. (2012). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®guide) -fifth Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2012). The standard for portfolio management — third edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (2008). Organizational project management maturity model (OPM3®) knowledge foundation – 2nd edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Committee ISO/PC 236, Project Management. (2012). Guidance on project management. International Organization for Standardization.

ISACA ( (2012). COBIT® 5: Enabling Processes ISBN 978-1-60420-241-0 Printed in the United States of America.

©2013, Maria Cristina Barbero
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Istanbul, Turkey



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