One More Reason to Have a Center of Excellence
Reuse has recently emerged as one of the big strategic priorities. At a time when staff costs are at a premium, ensuring that teams aren’t reinventing the wheel every time a new project or initiative is kicked off is critical.
Businesses achieve this by making knowledge, assets and existing work both searchable and accessible — and by having formal or informal structures whose purpose is to create opportunities to extend existing investments further.
Those structures often take the form of communities of practice (CoP, informal) or centers of excellence (CoE, formal).
The Difference Between Communities of Practice and Centers of Excellence
The Project Management Institute (PMI) explains the delineation between the two. It defines a CoE as, “A group of people with specialized skills and expertise whose job is to provide leadership and purposely disseminate that knowledge within your organization. A CoP is a collection of people who share a craft or profession who have banded together to ‘learn’ from each other to develop themselves and often even the organization.”
It goes on to state that, “The primary difference between a CoE and a CoP is that a CoE is often purposefully created by an organization with funded members whose full-time job is to coach, teach, and mentor people whereas CoPs are voluntary efforts that typically aren’t funded.”
I’ve long had exposure to CoEs. Nintex has one, as do many large organizations (CoP and CoE expansion are on the current strategic roadmap of the Bureau of the Fiscal Service, as just one example). Gartner talks about the presence of CoEs as a given for domains as diverse as supply chain, managing vendor and technology risk, automation and robotics. CoEs are a pivotal part of the shared services structure of many organizations, and will continue to be.
Community is an essential mechanism to encourage reuse and continual learning in organizations, according to McKinsey, and CoEs (and CoPs) are an ongoing vehicle for that. But community-building in any sphere requires investing effort in the right places.
Knowing what those places are, and potential challenge areas to address, can assist organizations in tightening up existing CoEs, or may give more organizations the confidence to commit to setting one up.
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What it Takes to Create a Healthy Center of Excellence
CoEs can either fail at the first hurdle or falter after the fact for any number of reasons.
A key challenge is resourcing. There are misconceptions over how big a CoE needs to be, and whether setting one up means seconding or taking people away from one part of the business to work in another. This is a somewhat archaic view: most CoEs, even in larger, well-resourced organizations, aren’t assembled by poaching from existing teams.
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Clarity of Purpose
Another assumption is that a CoE is a group of people. It's not — it's a function. It could be one person in a tiny organization but the function is shared libraries, templates, best practices — a place to go for reuse of knowledge and assets. It can be as large or small as it needs to be. The important thing is that it exists.
Where a CoE exists, the next challenge is evangelizing its existence to encourage the broadest use possible. One of the dangers is that the worth and capabilities of CoEs may never be made clear to employees. The result is they end up underutilized — and it’s a cycle that can be hard to break out of. People are unaware of the CoE, so they don't pass on work and then the CoE has no ‘wins’ to celebrate.
An executive sponsor may be key to breaking that cycle: communicating to the rest of the organization what the CoE is, what it's there for, how to engage with it, and then celebrating the wins as it gets runs on the board — facilitating that snowball effect.
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One of the reasons CoEs may lack executive sponsorship from day one is a lack of understanding of the strategic assistance these structures can provide. Because they're multi-faceted, they are well-positioned to provide, for example, process ‘health’ reports and intelligence about the organization that feed into strategy discussions or challenge existing assumptions. Better understanding the potential output of a CoE could immediately increase its use.
Finally, in empowering reuse of knowledge and assets, CoEs necessarily set some base rules and guidance for governance purposes. In doing so, they may run a risk of being seen to stifle innovation instead of encouraging it. This is not dissimilar to any internal effort that sets guardrails. These should not be viewed as constraints, but instead as defined pathways to achieve success and maturity, using past learnings to remove future friction.
None of this should discourage CoE use. The CoE remains a key vehicle and enabler for enterprise reuse. A careful, considered approach to the setup and evolution of a CoE will go a long way to driving innovation and building a strong work culture around key business processes.
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About the Author
Chris Ellis, director of pre-sales at Nintex, gained invaluable experience in SharePoint, Office 365 and the Nintex Platform as a pre-sales solution specialist within the partner network. Hailing from Aberdeen in Scotland, his work with the Nintex Platform exposed him to the full lifecycle from analysis and requirement gathering to delivery, support and training, contributing across a spectrum of projects in various industries and in some interesting places.