A Center of Excellence (CoE), and sometimes called a Center for Excellence (C4E), is a group of people with specialized skills and expertise whose job is to provide leadership and purposely disseminate that knowledge within your organization. CoEs should not be confused with Communities of Practice (CoPs), discussed later, are sometimes referred to as guilds. In the last few years we’ve seen Agile CoEs, Testing CoEs, DevOps CoEs, and Architecture CoEs created within organizations to help their continuous improvement efforts.
A Center of Excellence (CoE) is typically formed to address a skills/knowledge deficit within an organization. The members of a CoE are typically coaches, so an Agile CoE is a collection of agile coaches, a testing CoE a collection of testing coaches, and so on. CoE coaches will be involved with many of the activities of Continuous Improvement:
Identifying techniques. Coaches will work with one another, and with the people that they are coaching, to identify potential techniques (practices, strategies, principles) that they can help people to adopt to improve the way that they work.
Sharing techniques. Coaches will help practitioners to share techniques that they find effective with one another. Helping to build a learning organization is the primary way for CoE coaches to scale their efforts and better yet work their way out of job.
Capturing techniques. CoE coaches will work with practitioners to capture viable techniques so as to build organizational memory around their processes and strategies.
Supporting teams. The primary mission for CoE coaches is to support individual and team learning. As you can see in the goal diagram below, there is a wide range of strategies available to you.
Organizing CoPs. Very often a CoE will initiate, or at least support the initiation of, one or more communities of practice (CoP) to aid their educational efforts. For example, an Agile CoE may help to organize an Agile CoP, an Agile Testing CoP, a Lean Architecture CoP, and many others.
Governing improvement. A CoE will often collect and track a collection of metrics to help them both govern and to justify your organization’s investment in the CoE.
A CoE will be formed by identifying people who have the skills/knowledge, the ability to coach and likely train people, and who have the drive to continue learning on their own. The following table compares and contrasts common strategies for finding CoE coaches.
Hire from within
The person is known and (hopefully) respected within your organization
The person knows how to navigate your organizational environment
May not have experienced the CoE’s topic outside of your organization, and as a result may struggle with “that’s the way it’s done here” type issues
May still be wrapped up in the activities of their existing position
Often new to being a CoE coach
Hire new employees
Brings a new viewpoint and fresh experiences into your organization
Often has CoE coaching experience
Can be very hard to find, particularly if you don’t already have people experienced in the CoE topic to help you identify viable candidates
Can be difficult to get rid of a full time employee (FTE) if they don’t work out
Easier to find candidates to choose from because many experts choose to become consultants
There may be opportunity to hire the person as a full time employee (FTE) once you’ve tried them out
Difficult to identify this type of person if you don’t already have people experienced in the CoE topic to help you identify viable candidates
CoEs will self organize, and within larger CoEs a Team Lead, often called a CoE Lead, will emerge to guide the team.
CoEs and Other Teams
CoEs have close relationships with, and overlapping membership with, two other types of teams:
Communities of Practice (CoPs). A Community of Practice (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. 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. CoPs, because of their voluntary nature, often last much longer than CoEs and may be the end result of a CoE once its official funding disappears.
Work teams. Very often there will be work teams within your organization whose purpose is to perform the some or all of the work activities supported by a CoE. For example, your organization may have an Enterprise Architecture (EA) team (or simply an architecture team) whose actual purpose is to evolve and support your EA strategy. In parallel you may also have an Architecture CoE helping people to learn and share architecture skills and even an Architecture CoP. Note that a CoE is a type of work team.