Growing Centers of Excellence

Continuing a series of posts addressing some of the lessons and take aways from recent experience in establishing Centers of Excellence.

I believe different enterprises are at different levels of sophistication in their use of centers of excellence (CoEs) and view them at different levels of strategic importance. Organizational Maturity Models are a good approximation to the stages enterprises will experience in creating CoE’s. Perhaps the best know of these is the Capability Maturity Model (CMM or CMMI.)

The CMM model identifies five increasing levels of maturity for an organization:

  1. Initial (chaotic, informal, ad hoc, heroic) the starting point for use of a new process.
  2. Repeatable (managed, documented, process discipline) the process is used repeatedly.
  3. Defined (institutionalized, integrated) the process is defined/confirmed as a standard business process.
  4. Managed (strategic, quantified) best practices are shared and process management and measurement takes place.
  5. Optimized (continuous improvement)  includes deliberate and continuous process optimization/improvement.
    – Adopted from Wikipedia Capability_Maturity_Model

Applying these concepts to CoEs, we see that the initial stage usually exists before organizations begin to recognize the need for CoE’s. Capabilities may initially live in functional organizations or with individuals.

Typically organizations begin to move to a repeatable stage when they start viewing CoEs as an asset to project teams. With this project centric view, they know that teams need support and are looking for a home for the deeper skills they require. My company with 13 centers took this view. They created CoE’s for Architecture, .NET, Business Intelligence, Content Management, QA, Scrum, Database, etc. By the most basic definition, all were CoEs.  They drafted owners for each CoE and created a charter defining each center. They began coordinating across projects, helping plan and set scope, and monitoring the capabilities they were responsible for building.

The next step for the CoE’s was to begin to define and document the standards and practices for their competency. In this stage they captured best practices in a wiki format and began to more actively manage associated risk and quality. They created basic training and became more active in communicating the competencies across the organization.

Many competency areas do not need to fill all the responsibilities of a mature CoE and may not make the leap to a more mature levels. Most will be satisfied with achieving the first few levels of maturity. Making the leap to the next higher level requires strong coordination and, therefore, strong commitment across executive levels.

Organizations that can gain this commitment can begin to build managed, strategic CoEs. The focus should no longer be within a division, but across an organization. They will begin to support corporate goals and plans, integrate with corporate score cards, and actively manage a portfolio of initiatives across the organization that use their service. The true power of CoE’s begins to be unleashed as more formal career paths are created and development and mentoring become available for the competencies the CoE supports.

Optomized CoE’s continue to build increased corporate value. At this level, the CoE is an asset that is recognized across the organization. They will feel ownership for corporate goals and will ensure success of projects supporting those goals. Assessments will ensure consistent application and improvement of the competencies needed to meet the goals. They take responsibility for the corporate score cards and their associated value. Audits, skill assessments and certifications further improve capabilities.

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