You may have heard of the concept of Centers of Excellence (CoE) or Communities of Practice (CoP) within an organization. In the world of Agile IT projects, there are a lot of misunderstandings and expectations of what a CoE is and how a CoE should work to deliver results.
At Modus Create, we have a clear understanding of how these communities work and the value they bring. They bring together experts in a field to grow together in a community. A CoE is about teaching others and guiding them so they can add new tools to their professional toolbox. Modus created “Communities of Experts” (CoEs) based on the belief that expertise drives excellence.
While the use of the CoE concept might be widespread, it is not easy to build these communities. Let’s dive into our learnings on creating a CoE.
What is a Community of Experts?
Modus is a 100% remote organization with global operations that serve numerous client projects for some of the biggest companies in the world. We have always relied on the culture of our organization to drive consistency, collaboration, and thought leadership. By creating CoEs we are taking the best of our values and making a structured program that help our teams to:
- Consolidate the knowledge and best practices they already have
- Document standards to ease their adoption and education of new members
- Research the skills of the future and where thought leadership can open new opportunities
- Reduce delivery times for our clients by sharing knowledge and reutilizing assets
So what is a CoE? By definition, a CoE is a group of people, specialized around a set of skills and expertise that work together to help adopt, disseminate, and promote company-wide best practices and thought leadership. At Modus, we specifically switched from the traditional mindset of defining a CoE as a “Center of Excellence” to purposefully using the term “community” in the name.
This is an example of the greater pattern of behavior at Modus of taking what exists, injecting our cultural values, and adapting it to what our clients’ needs. The concept of a Community instead of a Center is significant. It reflects the sense of participation, self-organization, and mutual respect inherent in the company. Instead of a top-down set of standards defined by a small group, our Communities of Experts work together to co-create best practices, share them with the community, and invite others to visit the community at Brown Bag events, Demos, and in R&D projects. Modus CoE’s don’t promote a specific technology – they help our teams grow their leadership competencies, collaboration abilities, and communication skills.
CoEs are a flagship program at Modus. Because clients trust Modus as their expert advisor on technical decisions, strengthening the use of common best practices enhances our ability to provide outcomes for our clients. The CoE creates a mechanism for creative collaboration on problem solving and for sharing outcomes with the global team to empower success on future client projects.
CoE: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing
Similar to the way that teams go through development phases (Tuckman’s stages of development), a CoE does the same. In this article, I’ve emphasized how a Community of Experts will go through these phases, from forming to performing. There is much more to add to this, but I’ve tried to note some important aspects and details for each phase.
The first phase of CoE team development is forming. This is a challenging phase and I recommend that you involve as many people as you can. I quickly learned this lesson by making the mistake of initially only involving a small group of engineers in the first Modus CoE of Quality Assurance.
I was leading the implementation of the CoE and I was in charge of launch. What I did first was to select some engineers based on my knowledge of their experience and workload. Instead of including all QA engineers in this initiative, I was only thinking about including some of them. I was so wrong!
After discovering my mistake, I quickly fixed my approach. I immediately shifted and went for a global approach where the CoE was available to everybody across the global team. After making this change, we saw amazing results. People started to collaborate and work together and take ownership of the CoE. Beyond that, engineers without quality assurance experience have joined the QA CoE. They joined to support the effort and learn from their peers.
Based on this experience, I suggest sending invites to a broader audience. Bringing more talented people into the fold is never a bad thing. Additionally, involving more people will increase the chance of success with more responsible parties collaborating. Members are more driven to take ownership if they are involved from the beginning.
At this stage, it’s important the CoE appoints a single leader to ensure focus during the development stages. This leader should have significant experience in the field, very strong communication skills, a positive attitude, and some entrepreneurial skills. It’s all about having a mindset of motivating the people around them to do amazing things.
The team may appear disconnected, but there is no reason to worry – this is normal. Since you are rolling out a new team, not all procedures and tools will be in place yet. At this point, the CoE is a group of people that have the same interests, but nothing more.
It is important for the group to start defining what the strategy and vision of this new group is. As an exercise you can have all group members think about the scope, the purpose, and the goal of the CoE.
There will be a lot of questions on who does what, as no processes will be in place and there are no tools to support the work. These things are normal. Everything will align in the next steps and you will see that people will get more engaged after answering some of their questions.
Characteristics of this phase:
- Single leader
- No processes and tools
- Low traction
- Lots of unanswered questions
At this point, CoE members will switch from members to involved participants – signifying the start of the storming phase. In this phase, the CoE will continue to function with a single leader. One important group to identify in this phase is the stakeholders of the CoE. It is critical for the future of the CoE to have a list of stakeholders, since they will take on the important role of defining how the CoE will deliver within the organization. In some cases, the stakeholders also play the role of sponsors. After the CoE gets traction, you will need to secure funding to keep the CoE running. This is where sponsors can assist.
In this phase, you will need to create functional procedures, including the right toolset to track work and activities. CoE members will need to record best practices for the group and commit to what deliverables the CoE will be responsible for. The CoE’s members will start to take tasks, form smaller task-forces, and take action on completing work. It is with this participation that members gain a sense of community and work with experts that they may not have worked with otherwise. Thus, team members learn and share their learnings as they work together.
The CoE is now entering into a stability phase, where things settle down and maturation begins. The CoE now has the right people, the right tools and processes, and a defined approach on how it will deliver work.
Characteristics of this phase:
- Single leader
- Stakeholders are identified
- Active users
- Procedures and tools are getting created
- Some of the questions are answered
This is a stability phase, where things are starting to run smoothly. Key contributors and those passionate about the work the CoE is doing will begin to self-identify. These individuals will become the leaders that drive the community forward, ensuring it delivers on its promises. So it’s also important to give visibility to the team’s achievements and recognize their contributions. By rewarding the right behaviors, the teams will start to see the value of their actions and the potential for continued contribution.
One of the most important changes in this phase will be the switch from a single leader approach to a team approach. The CoE will transform into a self-directed team. The team may implement a more mature approach by documenting processes and setting a meeting cadence.
This is also the stage when the CoE will deliver its first outcomes. Those outcomes might include defining best practices, providing a basic toolset for the CoE team, defining procedures, or creating templates. The CoE needs to stay in sync with company objectives, making it mandatory for the CoE to regularly sync with the leadership team.
The CoE must also have touchpoints and reviews with stakeholders to ensure completed tasks meet the goals and expectations for the long term success of the community. Quick adjustments and evaluations can be made after these “gut check” meetings.
Characteristics of this phase:
- Team approach
- Mature collaboration
- CoE is starting to deliver
- Increased stability
Once the CoE hits this phase, the building aspect of the CoE is complete. It is now a hub with spikes that operates as a team of teams, organized around one speciality. Smaller working groups within the community emerge – working in parallel to deliver results aligned with the overall mission. As things continue to mature, the CoE updates some of the tools and processes they are using, and the CoE collaborates with others in the organization to empower change and growth. The CoE is now running at full speed.
A hub and spike team architecture allow various working groups to focus on different areas. Some may work on maintaining the documentation and standards already defined, while others may focus on auditing other teams and propagating the standards, continuing the work of defining new ideas, new best practices, or combining their specific technology with that of other CoEs.
For instance, at Modus Create, we see a lot of value in our QA CoE sharing ideas and best practices with our Laravel CoE and our DevOps CoE. Once the three CoEs enter the performing phase we will gain significant benefits by combining members on new joint projects.
This phase is when tasks around building new R&D projects and exploring new technologies take shape. The team has documented its standards and is working as a team; projects to expand skills or learn new potential disciplines are much more likely to succeed.
Additionally, in this phase, the hub will work smoothly and the CoE will be able to attack more difficult tasks, such as having senior members of the CoE interface with clients in best practices conversations, dedicated projects, or audits.
Characteristics of this phase:
- Hub delivery model
- CoE is fully integrated into the organization
- Key players are identified
- Expected outcomes are being delivered
The Phases of building a Community of Experts
It’s important to keep in mind that, as with any team, the creation of a cohesive and high-performing team requires constant adjustment. These steps will continue to evolve, and the Lean experimentation written into the Modus DNA will drive our teams to test new ways of working together.
Now that you know what to expect at each stage of CoE development, you can act accordingly. Don’t expect to have a fully running CoE in the first phase. Building a CoE takes time and requires patience. The role of stakeholders and the leaders of the organization is identifying how they can help the progression and growth in each phase and do so. That will increase the velocity with which your team moves through the first three phases. Before you know it, you’ll be in the performing phase. That’s where we all want to be: working at full speed. But the journey to get there has lots of value and creates significant, but rewarding, effort. When implementing CoEs, don’t forget to enjoy the ride!