Paraphrasing the definition from Wikipedia, a center of excellence (COE) is a team that provides leadership, research, support and/or training for a focus area. COE’s are deployed for many reasons such as developing an organizational skill, rescuing a troubled initiative, or sometimes sheer desperation.  The reason and implementation path of the COE will impact the perception and value delivered This might seem like common knowledge, but to quote Voltaire, “common sense is not so common.” Done well, a COE can help infuse knowledge and energy into an organization. Done differently, a COE ends up becoming bureaucratic auditors under the flag of best practices.

In a blog entry about overcoming potential issues with COEs, Salesforce classifies COEs into four types:

  • Best Practice Centers –The goal of this type of COE is to disseminate data and foster collaboration. The nucleus of a best practice COE often begins with idea evangelists that coalesce to mature and push an idea into an organization. For example, I recently talked with a recently formed best practice center that was formed to mature ideas around test-driven development in an organization. Simple measures of success for the organization is reduced cycle time and improved product quality.
  • DevOps Centers – This type of COE delivers a service to the organization.  Consolidation of the service into a shared service increases consistency and provides a platform for improved governance. DevOps centers generate demand through governance; pushing services by controlling who can perform those services. For example, a large services company requires all bids to be reviewed and shaped by an estimation COE.  DevOps types of COEs can also act as a highly structured training ground when included as a step in a job rotation program. Simple measures of success for this type of COE include utilization metrics (how much the shared service is used versus not used).
  • Competency Centers – This type of COE adopts and refines processes and frameworks that can be leveraged across organizations.  Salesforce uses the term “guide” to describe this type of COE. Competency centers generate demand for their services by consulting and selling ideas.   As this type of COE evolves it generally becomes a mixture between a think tank and process laboratory, which can lead to the next level. Simple measures of success include process and framework adoption rates and internal consulting requests.
  • Innovation Centers – Change is perceived to be a constant in most organizations.  Innovation COEs develop or mine the industry for new and innovative approaches to continuously modernize products and to improve the concept to cash cycle team.  Simple measures of success include the number of experiments performed and the number of ideas inculcated into other portions of the organization.

Most COEs begin as best practice center or DevOps COEs to deal with specific problems within an organization.COEs in this category can slowly become the bureaucratic process police leveraging thier zealousness in support of ideas at the core of the COE. Competency and innovation centers tend not to fall into this pattern of behavior. The framework of COEs proposed by Salesforce can easily be viewed as a maturity model; however, there is no reason organization can’t immediately jump to competency and innovation centers which avoid the potential problems with pushing demand for their services rather generating the need for services.