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8 reasons COEs fail (Part 1)

February 17, 2010

In my last series of posts (and in the spirit of John Mancini’s 8 Things page), I looked at eight reasons why a COE might be a good choice for some organizations. In this next series of posts, I turn to consider the eight main reasons I see COEs fail—or at least struggle—in my own practice. Here they are in a nutshell:

  1. Failure to address a real organizational need
  2. Failure to align with the aims and goals of the larger organization
  3. Lack of top down support
  4. Gaps in stakeholder representation
  5. Insufficient time commitment from COE members
  6. Inappropriate COE model for the process area, business activity, or capability the COE is meant to address
  7. Culture clash between COE and larger organization
  8. Failure to adapt to changing conditions in the larger organization or marketplace

With that, let’s turn to look at the first two.

#1. Failure to address a real organizational need

No matter how well designed the COE, how talented its members are, or how much top-level support it has, if it doesn’t address a real organizational need, it will ultimately fail. Membership in a COE is something over and above employees’ day-to-day responsibilities, so if it doesn’t have a direct, significant, and tangible impact to the organization as a whole, it won’t last for long—people outside the COE  will stop caring about it and people inside it will find other, more mission-critical tasks to take the place of their COE duties.

More often than not, a failed COE met the needs of some constituencies in the organization. After all, a group of folks took on the responsibility to plan and build the COE, ostensibly because it held out the promise of value to them. But in these cases, the problem typically is that the COE cast its net too narrowly and only addressed the needs of a small subset of the organization.

In my practice I see this most often around records management and IT-centric COEs. Faced with the challenge of governing user behavior, on the one hand, and improving service delivery or cutting costs on the other (both usually with little to no budget), a COE is an attractive option: with no new hires, no changes to reporting relationships, and no spend on technologies or equipment, a small group of experts can write policies, design improved processes, and “build a better mousetrap” for the business activities they own.

The problem is that no business activity exists in a vacuum, and so, despite the fact that no one in the business seems to care about records management (see here for a deeper consideration of this phenomenon) or is eager to understand the intricacies of IT service delivery, both of these disciplines have profound implications for the business as a whole, and any changes to how they operate send ripples (often waves) throughout large portions of the organization and provoke entrenched and immovable resistance to the proposed changes.

So, when an insulated group of experts design and create a COE to address their limited needs, the COE is almost certain to fail, because they have not included everyone who will be affected in the planning and design, and so the resulting COE will certainly not meet the needs of this larger group or help them achieve their goals—and therefore it won’t meet the needs and goals of the organization as a whole, either.

#2. Failure to align with the aims and goals of the larger organization

Even if a COE meets a real organizational need, it may do so in a way that clashes with the aims and goals of the larger organization and endanger its success (or even survival). For example, let’s say there’s a real organizational need for improved collaboration at an organization because of how virtualized the workforce is or increasingly global the organization is becoming. Folks across the organization recognize this need, and there’s broad support for a COE to address it, including committed high-level executive support. The COE is planned and built, and it sets about establishing policies and procedures, improved processes, even making technology recommendations to the organization to optimize collaboration.

Now, let’s say the COE has done a good job hearing the needs of users on the ground across the organization and has determined that collaboration can most effectively be fostered in the near term on the local level (i.e., within groups and geo locations) rather than the organizational (i.e., across groups and geo locations). The COE feels that there are just too many differences between how groups and locations operate to make a unified approach to collaboration feasible at this point in time and recommends that the enterprise support collaboration with a  federated, localized model. No matter how reasonable, educated, or well-articulated this approach is, if it conflicts with a larger organizational aim or goal (for example, of platform or operational standardization), the COE faces an uphill battle at best, or a losing battle at worst.

None of this is to say that the COE has to move in lockstep with the larger organization, because it doesn’t; but it does have to operate in alignment with it, i.e., in awareness of its aims and goals and the larger political forces at play. By doing so, it can pave the way for its recommendations by framing them in light of organizational aims and goals, for example, by demonstrating why collaboration should fall outside the organizational push for standardization or how a local approach to collaboration is simply phase one and will dovetail farther out with enterprise standardization, and so on.

In the next post, we’ll turn our attention to reasons 3-5.

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