Despite the odd terminology (does a "Center of Excellence" imply that the rest of your company is a Dispersion of Mediocrity?), establishing a Center of Excellence (COE) is regarded as a fast way to centralize expertise, advance an element of your strategic agenda, or help spread technical knowledge. Larger companies might have a dozen COEs, ranging from the administrative with a Master Data COE, to the knowledge-oriented with a Mobile Development COE, to the strategic with something like an Advanced Projects COE.
The benefits are fairly obvious: centralizing the right people and resources and focusing them on a specific task should speed implementation and increase quality. However, there's a wrong way to build an effective COE that's unfortunately more common than it should be. Here's how to build a COE the wrong way:
Email without empowerment
Most COEs are announced with flowery emails, with the help of high-zoot consultants, and for many, that's the extent of the time invested in building the COE. Send a great email announcement, and ideally draft people into the COE who have no idea what a COE is or what's expected of them, and you're on the path to failure.
Furthermore, to ensure your COE's performance is lackluster, don't provide them with the tools and empowerment they need to get the job done. Ideally, rather than an entity to speed a critical function, your COE will become another bureaucratic layer that creates complexity and a "department of no" mentality.
The COE band-aid
The COE is a perfect way to disguise an underlying problem within your organization. Network going down all the time? Establish an "Infrastructure Center of Excellence," and that will surely cure your woes. Help desk obsessed with closing tickets rather than solving problems? How about a Customer Service Excellence Center? If there are basic flaws with how your organization performs a particular task, rather than evaluating its metrics, capabilities, and people, a COE is often used to avoid the hard work that fixing these problems entails. You can often create a double whammy of ineffectiveness by putting a broken COE atop a broken process.
Ensure metrics are vague (if you have metrics at all)
An organization that should be highly focused, and performing a limited subset of tasks well is even more sensitive to its performance metrics than more generalist groups. To ensure your COE is as ineffective as possible, provide them with very vague metrics, or leave them to their own devices to establish their own metrics. Without metrics, a COE that's expected to increase turnaround time might become obsessed with perfection, and ultimately perform worse than in the past. A COE that's supposed to build technical competence might instead become obsessed with rigid standards and approvals that slow development.
Make the COE a fourth job
Most of us have multiple "day jobs," from running the business to managing and developing our people. To build a COE the wrong way, add COE responsibilities to your people as a fourth or fifth job, ideally without providing any background or expectations on their role. They'll generally perceive the COE as unimportant, or an additional burden, reducing its effectiveness even further.
Don't sell the COE to the rest of the organization
Any new organizational structure is likely to be regarded with suspicion by the rest of your organization, especially one with a rather pretentious name like a COE. Make sure you combine an obnoxious name (a "Center for Sales Excellence" will really please the salesforce that's now clearly un-excellent) with no explanation of the benefit the COE is expected to provide the rest of the organization. With this combination, you'll look out of touch, and appear to be trying to build fiefdoms and perform organizational "navel gazing" rather than accomplishing real work.
Doing it right
While the examples above are tongue-in-cheek, there are more COEs started with great intentions that fall victim to several of these challenges, and ultimately fail as a result. Excellence is a strong word, and one that should not be applied lightly lest your future efforts be regarded with suspicion. Ensure you have a legitimate reason for building a COE; structure it with the right people, tools, and metrics; and carefully explain how it will help the larger organization get work done.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.