Centers of Excellence (COE) are the hottest thing since Corporate Universities, and as a result you can’t dig any more than three layers into most organizations before running into one. As a concept they are fantastic – it makes sense to gather your best resources around an area of expertise to provide guidance around a stalled or lacking business target.

However, some organizations misinterpret or stretch the COE definition and then wonder why they aren’t seeing the benefits that they expected. While there is a wide range of valuable activities a COE can engage in, there are a few things that a COE is not and cannot be if it hopes to remain effective.

  1. There is no such thing as a one-person COE. When you have one person who is more competent than anyone else in your organization in a given area of practice, that person is a Subject Matter Expert. A COE is a group of people who bring together different viewpoints and can analyze an issue in a more complete way than an individual. A true COE is composed of people who have strengths that complement one another and are therefore able to meet the needs of a focus area from a higher level perspective.
  2. A COE is not a call center. A group of people performing similar functions can be called a center, but the excellence part only comes if the majority of that group’s time is spent improving the process or skill that the center is responsible for. Simply calling a functional area a COE without competence dedicated to improvement will not result in that center delivering returns above its volume capability.
  3. Not every problem needs a COE. Some problems can be fixed by making and supporting change. Problems that benefit from a COE are constantly evolving, complex and require intervention over a longer period of time. But nothing says a COE has to exist forever. If the area has met its goals or new goals have taken precedence, there is no reason it has to remain part of your organizational landscape.

Like most things in business, we have to constantly re-evaluate the approaches we take to solve problems and be very clear about the results we expect. In terms of the creation of a COE, make sure your efforts are contributing to the context or environment you are trying to address.

Applying this to the performance grid, your COE should directly focus on two left uppermost boxes and to a certain extent the incentives and consequences. When your COE crosses the line and becomes about individual skill, capability, or motivation (as the three examples above), it will probably miss the mark.