Center of Excellence, Competency Center: Permanent or Temporary?

This is a topic that originally came up during a SOA Consortium conference call a month or two ago. Since that time, the topic has come up several more times in my day to day efforts, so I thought I’d post a blog on it.

First, what is Center of Excellence (COE) or a Competency Center (CC)? You can see that I’m using these two terms synonymously, which is my opinion based on how I’ve seen it used at organizations. The second term may be one that is more familiar to people thanks to Gartner’s concept of an Integration Competency Center. The one defining concept that I’ve seen in organizations that have either Centers of Excellence or Competency Centers is that they cross organizational boundaries. That is, they don’t show up on an organization chart, or if they do, everyone that exists in it is connected by a dotted line rather than a solid line. This is a recognition by the organization that while org charts can provide clarity and focus for some efforts, those boundaries can also be a hinderance for others. I personally am of the opinion that no organizational structure is perfect, and if an organization can’t effectively work outside the boundaries of the structure, they’ll struggle. It’s a matter of knowing when you should be working within the boundaries and when you should be crossing the boundaries.

Anyway, given this common thread, I was surprised to find that I was in the minority on the conference call when advocating a position that a Center of Excellence or Competency Center should be a temporary thing, not a permanent one. In reality, it all comes down to the purpose of the team.

Many times, a COE or CC is formed around a new technology for which there is a limited supply of competent staff. It is at this point that an organization must decide how it wants to approach the technology adoption. Is the technology one in which the organization’s demand will outstrip supply if people aren’t trained? If so, a COE or CC can be a valuable tool, if the team understands its purpose. Its purpose is not to hoard all of the development efforts, its purpose is to train others. While short term success is great for building momentum, it will quickly fall apart when the team starts turning down projects because of lack of competent staff.

At the same time, there are scenarios where the demand is light, but the technology is complicated. Here, it makes more sense for a COE or CC to play the role of the outsourcer. Give us your work, we’ll do it and deliver it back to you. The challenge with this also lies with the demand. If the demand level isn’t sufficiently stable, it’s hard to justify creating an organization around it. If the demand is sufficiently stable, then we have a different situation. On the one hand, if the demand is stable, one should consider making this a permanent organization. Is it really a COE or CC, though? Earlier, I said that a common thread is a cross-functional team. If there is a small but constant demand for the use of a technology that justifies an outsourcing rather than mentor or project staffing model, is this more indicative a misalignment in the organizational structure?

In summary, I do believe that centers of excellence or competency centers can be a very useful tool for an organization, but they also have risks associated with them. The key to mitigating the risk is in understanding the engagement model the team will have with projects and making sure it is in alignment with the needs of the organization. If the organization needs to introduce new skills to a broad audience, an outsourcing engagement model won’t cut it. If there isn’t a need for a broad skill adoption, but enough of a demand to sustain a team full of experts, a mentoring or project allocation model won’t work.

3 Responses to “Center of Excellence, Competency Center: Permanent or Temporary?”

  • Todd, you make some good points here. I think it gets back to one size doesn’t fit all though. To me it’s no different from a distributed computing model versus a centralized computing model. Some organizations are very successful with the distributed model and they are usually better at governance too. Other organizations need a bit more centralization in order to be successful.

    I tend to like the centralized CC model that kind expands and contracts as needed. There is a core team but additional resources are added in as needed or taken away. I do agree though that ultimately with SOA the skill sets need to be propagated out to the entire organization.

  • […] I will never be classified as a night person. Anyway, in reading back over my post yesterday on Centers of Excellence or Competency Centers, I never quite finished my train of thought, but a post from the SOA Consortium blogs by Brenda […]

  • […] Todd Biske argued in a recent blog post, there are good reasons to create a temporary center of excellence. Sometimes, you’ve got to […]

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