In a previous blog I covered how corporate Silos and Communities of Practice work together, and in this blog I will cover two similar ways to leverage expertise.
Other than having snappy Three Letter Acronyms (TLA), Centers of Excellence (CoE) and Communities of Practice (CoP) provide a company with ways to consolidate and build on its expertise in areas that bring direct financial and competitive results, and which translate to higher customer satisfaction, increased referenciability, and improvements in both capacity and capability. Both techniques of deploying expert knowledge provide increased job satisfaction and career development for staff at the same time.
One requires special organizational changes and an operational budget, and the other simply needs some infrastructural support to let people do what they are passionate about.
The following operational definition of a CoE is fairly useful
“Whatever you call them, a Center of Excellence (CoE) should, at a most basic level consist of: A team of people that promote collaboration and using best practices around a specific focus area to drive business results. This team could be staffed with full- or part-time members.” (Strickler 2008)
Strickler goes on to list what he considers to be the responsibilities of a CoE:
- 1. Support: For their area of focus, CoE’s should offer support to the business lines. This may be through services needed, or providing subject matter experts.
- 2. Guidance: Standards, methodologies, tools and knowledge repositories are typical approaches to filling this need.
- 3. Shared Learning: Training and certifications, skill assessments, team building and formalized roles are all ways to encourage shared learning.
- 4. Measurements: CoEs should be able to demonstrate they are delivering the valued results that justified their creation through the use of output metrics.
- 5. Governance: Allocating limited resources (money, people, etc.) across all their possible use is an important function of CoEs. They should ensure organizations invest in the most valuable projects and create economies of scale for their service offering. In addition, coordination across other corporate interests is needed to enable the CoE to deliver value.
- (Strickler 2008)
In comparison a CoP provides more or less the same in terms of 1-4, but has no official authority over deployment of company resources such as people, places, equipment, or budget.
A CoP provides as follows:
- Support – provision of a network of experts from both inside the organization and from outside
- Guidance – a CoP can be entrusted to devise and document best practices, standards, methodologies, tools, bodies of knowledge
- Shared Learning – Except for actually creating formalized roles in a company hierarchy, a CoP does all the same things as a CoE under this heading, plus provides mentorship, apprenticeships, and access to external informal and formal trade groups.
- Measurements – besides providing measurements of efficacy, a CoP typically describes what measures are appropriate for the proper execution of the domain of expertise or trade
- Governance – in this one dimension a CoP differs greatly from a CoE and instead of managing resources, a CoP strives to refine and improve the domain of expertise itself. A central function of the CoP is to improve the domain itself rather than simply managing its deployment. A CoE for project management seeks to improve the deployment of project managers and the like in furtherance of operational targets, whereas a CoP would seek to improve the entire field and practice of project management itself.
The Carnegie-Mellon Software Engineering Institute (SEI) offers a more detailed account of CoE including how to measure them
(Craig, Fisher et al. 2009)
They also offer a broader definition
(Craig, Fisher et al. 2009)
Their categories are similar to that of Strickler, but the SEI tabulate them as follows:
- Internal Business Process
- Customer Focus
- Innovation and Learning
Again we can usefully compare what a CoP does on the same dimensions
- Internal Business Process – A CoP applies domain principles to service organizational goals
- Customer Focus – While a CoP is focused more on refining the domain than on customer service, it acknowledges that this is a business goal of the host organization and therefore puts domain expertise in service of customers.
- Leadership – a CoP provides leadership on the use and principles of the domain itself
- Innovation and Learning – These are perceived as vital objectives and programs within a CoP, although it must be said that neither a CoP nor a CoE are natural sources of innovation as such since they are both conservationary entities rather than innovative.
- Financial – CoPs have little or no financial responsibilities , in part at least because they depend on members to provide discretionary effort and volunteerism rather than performing work in exchange for payment.
So What is a CoP then?
Wenger (2007) defines CoPs as follows : “Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour“(Wenger, McDermott et al. 2002) and goes on to provide some examples to demonstrate
“… a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” (Wenger, McDermott et al. 2002)
A CoP is an affiliation of people who share a common practice and who have a desire to further the practice itself … and of course to share knowledge, refine best practices, and introduce standards – but more on that later. CoPs are defined by their domain of interest, but the membership is a social structure comprised of volunteer practitioners.
CoPs differ from a CoE mainly in that they tend to have no geographical boundaries, they hold no hierarchical power within a firm, and they definitely can never have structure determined by the company.
However, one of the most obvious and telling differences lies in the stated motive of members – CoPs exist because they have active practitioner members who are passionate about a specific practice, and the goals of a CoP are to refine and improve their chosen domain of practice – and the members provide discretionary effort that is not paid for by the employer.
CoE members are paid by an employer substantively to perform that role, whereas CoP members may use infrastructure and time provided by their employer, but provide services and participation out of discretionary effort of their own. They are not paid for services rendered in the way a CoE member is.
For example: a CoP for Project Managers would transcend organizational boundaries and consist of members who are passionate about Project Management itself, and who may or may not be employed by the same firm or live on the same continent. They participate and contribute towards the improvement of project management itself because their common interest in refining and improving the practice of Project Management gives them a common interest.
CoPs may remain internal to a single company but there is no reason why they should do so (and plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t), and while they would benefit from support from the company, they don’t have to have it.
What a company can do for CoPs is provide resources like time, places to meet, IT services, stationery, coffee, tea, cookies, and maybe some money for occasional travel and beer.
What a company gets in return are fired-up and expert people who are masters of their game, and a set of practices and methods that get used consistently across different silos of the organization.
Suffice to say that companies that have thriving CoPs tend to be the leaders in their market niche and tend to have better staff retention and higher EBITDA than those that don’t.
Let’s look at the core characteristics of a CoP according to Wenger (2007)
- A Domain
‘…[a CoP] has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people’
- A Community
‘In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other’
‘Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction’
(Wenger 2007) in (Smith 2003, 2009)
A CoE is something that you must be able to afford to put in place, whereas a CoP is something you cannot afford not to put in place. The essence of a CoP is the concept of management being enablers and then simply getting out of the way of passionate people so that they can do their thing. Whether a person’s passion is codification systems for diagnosis & repair, financial measurement, or business analytics, there are bound to be others in the company, amongst business partners, or within the customer-base that are dying to work together on refining and advancing their domain of interest – all you need to do as a manager is enable them, empower them, and get out of the way so they can put passion to work.
Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management expert, holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra, and provides pro-bono consulting in Knowledge Management and IT Governance to various medical institutions.
Craig, W., M. Fisher, et al. (2009). Generalized Criteria and Evaluation Method for Center of Excellence: A Preliminary Report, Citeseer.
Smith, M. K. (2003, 2009). “Communities of practice.” The encyclopedia of informal education Retrieved 31 May, 2011, from www.infed.org/biblio/communities_of_practice.htm.
Strickler, J. (2008). “What is a Center of Excellence.” Retrieved 31/5/2011, 2011, from http://agileelements.wordpress.com/2008/10/29/what-is-a-center-of-excellence/.
Wenger, E. (2007). Communities of practice: Learning, meanings, and identity, Cambridge university press.
Wenger, E., R. A. McDermott, et al. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge, Harvard Business Press.
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