Experience in and out of them has taught me that Centers of Excellence are rarely if ever that – excellent. They are the most well intentioned of things at the beginning and often add value. The problem is the concept never really goes away on its own once in place. COE’s are more often than not created because there is a useful skill set, technology or process that has value – but not enough value for any one budgetary unit to fund it alone.
Some would also argue COE’s are a way of concentrating highly specialized and theoretically scarce resources so they can be leveraged across multiple organizations. During the early days of adoption for any program this is reasonable but more often than not the COE positions itself as a gatekeeper rather than a facilitator. Prioritizing access and ultimately justifying internal expansion.
A healthy COE should never expand beyond a predetermined point as demand grows for its services. It should replicate and specialize. This is possible to do while maintaining consistency and governance provided the COE has external oversight. If it does not replicate then the goal of the COE ultimately turns from change promotion to self-preservation. As the focus turns inward, quality and accountability to anyone but the internal chain of command erodes. The goal then becomes to preserve the metrics rather than deliver whatever service they were originally charged to manage.
So the bottom line advice – plan for retirement. From the beginning limit a COE’s original charter to three to four budget cycles. If it hasn’t discovered a replicating model in that time then there is little doubt that the original business case is still valid. In fairness though – vehemently guard the first two of those budgets as often truly transformational changes in large organizations are rarely bound by a 12 month cycle.
In any event you are guanteed that whatever the initiative, after three years technology and the economy will have changed to the point that revisiting whatever brilliant idea started it all is a good idea since the premise is probably no longer valid.