Creating a Center of Excellence? Here's How to Get Started
The center of excellence isn’t a new idea. The term has been bouncing around online since at least 2004 (likely longer) and refers to the idea of a group or organization that offers leadership, leans into best practices and promotes ongoing learning and training in a specific area.
And that specific area — it can be anything.
Centers of Excellence: Real-World Examples
Walmart, with its 10,500 stores and countless ecommerce channels, established an Accessibility Center of Excellence (ACE) in 2021.
The goal of ACE, according to Gayatri Agnew, senior director and head of the Accessibility Center of Excellence at Walmart, is to allow the retail giant to be “the most inclusive and accessible retail destination and employer for people with disabilities.”
“We are in year two of the accessibility team,” Agnew told Reworked, “And since then, we’ve built a team of passionate subject matter experts to lead us forward.”
ACE’s Accessibility Leadership Council leans on strategies that build a culture of belonging for employees with disabilities, including inclusive physical spaces, improving the accessibility of digital channels and establishing an accessibility lens for procurement processes.
“Underlying all of this is improving our feedback loops with customers and associates with disabilities,” said Agnew. “Listening, prioritizing feedback and taking action is at the core of the approach we take at ACE.”
Estée Lauder established its Equity and Engagement COE in 2021.
“Our collective vision is to be the most inclusive, equitable and diverse global prestige beauty company for our employees and consumers alike,” said Fabrizio Freda, president and CEO of The Estée Lauder Companies, in a press release.
Other notable organizations with centers of excellence include Ford Motor Company (focused on batteries), GE (powering efficiency), Pepsico (media and marketing), Mastercard (cybersecurity) and IBM (employee recruitment and retention).
COEs also span nonprofits, government sectors and academia. The College of New Jersey, for instance, has a Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL).
Judi Cook, executive director for CETL, said that the center’s primary goal is to “advance high quality student engagement and learning by supporting professional development of faculty and instructional staff in their roles as educators.”
In the next two years, she added, CETL plans to expand online resources to its faculty members and build stronger connections with the schools in order to customize solutions by discipline.
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Building a Center of Excellence: 5 Best Practices
Centers of excellence serve as hubs of expertise, bringing together top talent and specialized knowledge in a particular area. This concentration of knowledge and skills can lead to increased innovation, efficiency and effectiveness in that specific domain.
Agnew says she sees the center of excellence as “an imperative in working toward creating a culture where our associates and customers feel like they belong — from onboarding into the company to the tech we use every day.”
And what’s so useful about COEs is that they’re not limited to one type of business or organization. They have use in nearly any setting that requires a group of people to work and make decisions together.
Major organizations have already taken the leap. So, what goes into establishing a successful center of excellence?
1. Assemble the Right Team
A COE is only as powerful as the people who run it. A successful center of excellence will include top talents who possess the necessary expertise, skills and experience — along with an inimitable passion — in a targeted domain.
Walmart’s Agnew, for example, speaks openly about her mother’s struggles with disability and taking on the role of primary caregiver. The area of accessibility impacts her life beyond the confines of the workplace.
Though not every COE member needs to have that kind of direct, personal experience with the focus area — whether it’s accessibility, equity, talent development, research, they however need to be passionate about the area and have a track record of high performance.
2. Develop a Governance Structure
To operate coherently, every group needs some ground rules.
Centers of excellence need a clear governance structure that outlines roles, responsibilities, decision-making processes and reporting lines. This governance structure ensures the COE operates effectively and efficiently, with clear accountability and ownership. It also prevents one bad actor from seizing control or implementing hard-to-reverse, damaging changes.
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This guidance extends beyond the COE. It defines the relationship between the center of excellence and all parts of the organization, such as senior leadership, other departments and stakeholders. The result is a clear understanding between all parties and more room for collaboration and alignment.
3. Set Measurable Goals and Metrics
To track the performance of the COE, there must be measurable objectives and performance metrics. Now is a good time to think back to SMART goals — ones that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.
The group must define key performance indicators that align with the COE’s purpose and goals. These metrics might relate to operational efficiency, customer satisfaction, employee engagement or other areas.
Then, regularly monitor and review performance metrics to ensure the COE is on track and making a positive impact. And be flexible; the metrics may shift and evolve as the COE grows and solidifies its purpose.
4. Leverage Partnerships and Collaboration
The key to a successful center of excellence, said Cook, is to leverage partnerships and think of ways to collaborate.
There are many partners who support CETL at the College of New Jersey, she explained — the Division for Inclusive Excellence, IT, the Tutoring Center, the Faculty Senate and many others. And they collaborate to build meaningful resources for faculty.
“My advice,” said Cook, “would be to give consideration to partnerships and also use feedback from all stakeholders to guide a path forward. Knowing what faculty will find useful is important.”
That advice translates to the business realm, too. Whether your COE plans to impact employees, customers or community members — gathering feedback and determining what people need to thrive is crucial.
Agnew summed up the idea of soliciting and listening to feedback simply: “Listen to people with lived experience. They will always know best.”
5. Communicate and Demonstrate Value
A center of excellence can have a significant positive impact on an organization. But if people don’t know about the COE and all the great stuff it does, continuous investment could become a challenge.
Leaders must clearly communicate the value and benefits of the COE to senior leadership, other departments and stakeholders. They might:
- Share internal newsletters highlighting success stories.
- Hold presentations showcasing expertise.
- Host development workshops for employees.
- Share reports tracking progress, cost savings, customer satisfaction, etc.
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The Path to a Successful Center of Excellence
Building a center of excellence can be a smart decision for any organization looking to achieve excellence in a specific area or function.
A well-executed COE can improve upon nearly any domain: cost savings, operational efficiency, employee engagement and more.
However, building a successful COE requires dedication, commitment and ongoing effort from team members and the organization as a whole. The best practices above will help organizations build a COE that becomes a strategic asset, driving excellence and delivering tangible results.
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