Kickstarting Organization’s Centers of Excellence (CoE) Strategy – Part I

[This is the first in a series of blogs which I am writing to capture some of my thoughts and associated work which went through in providing my expertise around streamlining my current Organization’s Centers of Excellence (CoE) Strategy. The content in these blog posts are my views/observations/thoughts; and may or may not reflect the views or implementation strategy of my past or current employers]

Kickstarting CoE Strategy

Unless you are working for a  IBM or a SAP or GE or Keizer – who have done and dusted their organization’s Center of Excellence (CoE) Strategy – chances are that you are possibly working for an organization which fervently supports the CoE idea; have had several flings in defining and rolling out it out operationally; and yet find the strategy of CoE still sputtering to give them the desired results. I have had a chance to work for few of the organizations like that, including my current one. Over the last few years, I have been part of a team responsible to rekindle this CoE efforts within the organization. This (and the next few ones on this topic) is a summary of my thoughts/learnings about how to run a CoE within the organization.

Before I start jotting down my thoughts – it is important to understand what drives organizations towards CoEs. First, considering the published success of many bigger Fortune 100 organizations of using CoEs to manage complex organizational changes has encouraged many other organization to see if they can replicate the same success. Second, today’s business issues requires a more collaboratively determined solutions. Here again, the concept of CoEs is becoming an important strategic tool for managing such complex issues.

Step 0 – Understand what Center of Excellence (CoE) means?

Notice that I have given this step a count of 0. In order to build a robust CoE framework within an organization the need for understanding what CoE means to the organization is very important. I have sat across important members of the organizations and have heard incoherent answers from many of them about CoE means. They could answer what HR does in the organization; but could not do the same for CoE. Here are some of answers which I have heard about what CoE means from the important stakeholders in the organization. To which I have typically followed up with a question to test their answers.

  • “CoE is a group which builds expertise in a technology or domain or process in a Organization.” – How is this different from what Training Group does?
  • “CoE is a group which helps Sales in selling to the prospects” – Then is this the pre-sales group or the advisory group as many companies typically have?
  • “CoE is a group which looks at newer/future expertise over the horizon” – Why is there a need to do that? (the answer here would again point to the first two points. Hence I did not like this answer)
  • “CoE is the group which would have all answers or could get the answer” – Really?
  • “CoE is a group of like-minded people with common expertise/interests working together or CoE is a group which gives our smart people something exciting to work upon so that they stick with us.” – For this my follow-up question would typically get replaced by a silence. This silence is then followed by the question – Do you have a better answer than this?

Needless to say Center of Excellence is about many of the things above collectively and many more.  But the important part here is to go through such responses to understand and bring together a set of common assumptions and purposes associated with CoEs. Do not try to search for a perfect definition for CoE used in the industry. It is hard to find one. However, from the above Q&A types, try to create one for your organization.

Step 1 – Create a Mission/Charter for the CoEs. The Do’s and Don’ts!

Typically CoEs are created as an horizontal group within the organization which means it needs to serve a multi-departmental purpose. In my experience, creating the right mission/charter for CoEs in a multi-department organization is one of the biggest challenge considering that each departments has a different way to deliver to their goals. Also the key is not to have the charter of the CoEs to be very abstract. For example – charter such as “helping to drive products faster to the market” can be too broad.

Here are some of the standard charters which I have seen being used for the CoE along with my opinions on the same.

Charter My thoughts
Establish and drive successful deployment of best practices (standards, procedures, governance, etc.) supporting … Very operational charter
Provide thought leadership in the company in the area of … Too abstract; needs to drill down to next level
Serve as the single point of contact for .. Seriously, this cannot be the charter!
Responsible for Knowledge Management and Continuous Improvements for .. Good, but charter has to be bigger
Drive training, mentoring, and consulting for .. Good, but charter has to be bigger
Manage complex change initiatives within the organization … Good
Help organization to transform information and knowledge about a utility/emerging trends/technology/best practices to a competitive asset. I like this one

While the charter/focus of CoEs may change from organization to organization – IMO, the best charter which I personally like about CoEs is the following –

Centers of Excellence (CoE) exist to bring about an enterprise focus to anything which seems to be important for the business – from the perspective of data integration, marketing and sales, communication, project management, enterprise architecture, business and IT optimization, and enterprise-wide access to information.

In the next part in this series, I will talk about areas where CoE creation makes sense and where it does not; how to measure CoEs; and how to drive multiple Center of Excellences in the Organization.

In the meanwhile, I look forward to hearing your experiences in the area of CoE along with thoughts and comments about this particular post.

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