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8 reasons COEs fail (Part 2)

February 22, 2010

In the last post, we looked at the first two reasons COEs fail. In this post, we continue our look at the eight reasons COEs fail with reasons 3-5.

#3. Lack of top down support

Even if a COE is positioned to meet a real organizational need, without some measure of top-down support, it faces an uphill battle to remain relevant and avoid becoming simply one more committee in the eyes of the wider organization. It’s possible, of course, for a COE to be relevant, respected, and do productive work with no executive-level support, but it’s more difficult, and the kind of work it can do at the organization is more limited than it could accomplish with that support.

Without getting too deep into COE design principles, there is a continuum of authority that any given COE sits on, from purely advisory to authoritative, i.e., from here’s a recommended way to do things to here’s the way they must be done.

When given a mandate by the leadership of an organization, a COE has the flexibility to reside anywhere on this spectrum it needs to: it can sit back, generate best practice recommendations, and serve them up to whoever is willing to listen or it can act from a position of firm authority and effectively govern how a given process area, business activity, or capability is operationalized. In either case, support from the highest levels of the organization help fight the tendency of the larger organization to view the COE as a committee with no teeth and tip the scales toward relevancy for the COE.

#4. Gaps in stakeholder representation

Gaps in the stakeholders involved in the COE often leads to other issues, particularly the failure to meet larger organizational goals. In the records management and IT-centric COE example above, it is precisely the lack of all interested parties that ensures the COE will fail to meet a real organizational need. I’ve treated the need for broad stakeholder representation in another post, but in a nutshell, a COE needs to ensure that three broad classes of stakeholders are involved:

  1. IT Functions – These encompass the traditional technology disciplines, such as system analysis, architecture, application development, network operations, help desk/service desk, end user computing, and quality assurance, and may also include business analysis and project management (depending on how these functions are structured at an organization).
  2. Corporate Governance Functions – These encompass disciplines involved in monitoring and controlling the activity of an organization, such as legal, records management, information management, ethics and compliance, audit, internal investigations, master data management, human resources, and aspects of finance
  3. Business Functions – These are all functions (front- and back-office) not included in IT and corporate governance functions.

By doing so, the COE increases the likelihood that it considers all factors relevant to the organization when doing its work. It also ensures that its work will take longer, because having these three groups at the table will remove the possibility of easy answers to the issues the COE takes on. It also ensures that no single group will be 100% satisfied with the work of the COE—but no single group will be 100% dissatisfied, either. What will emerge from the proper balance of stakeholder representation is a “good enough” solution that meets 75% of the needs of all stakeholders—and in this way likely better meets the needs of the organization as a whole.

#5. Insufficient time commitment from COE members

This is an ever-present threat to a COE, even to one that has succeeded in finding a real organizational need to address, garnered top-level support, and secured a balanced set of stakeholders to participate in it. Even with all that in place, the reality is that COE membership is not usually anyone’s full-time job. Their performance metrics don’t depend on it, nor do their bonuses, commissions, or salary increases. It is an over and above activity, one that may provide tremendous satisfaction to members and deliver great value to the organization, but an over and above activity nonetheless.

So when there’s an operational crunch, downsizing, or other circumstances that cause folks to be short of time, over and above activities like COEs are at risk, not because members don’t value them, but because they find themselves short of time.

One way to combat this is to get creative with COE membership and responsibilities. Here are some things that I’ve seen work in my practice:

  • Membership tiers – split out the COE membership into different levels of commitment (core team, extended team, SMEs, and so on) based on function, level in the organization, skills, expertise, and experience.
  • Security council model – fixed circle of permanent members augmented by rotating members who serve limited terms and then swap out.
  • Fixed terms – make the more labor-intensive positions in the COE (such as chairperson or secretary) rotating ones.

In addition to easing the burden on COE members, these strategies help expose more employees to the COE (which improves the visibility and reputation of the COE in the organization) and cross-train those involved by moving them into different positions in the COE (which contributes to improved knowledge management at the organization).

In the next and final post, we’ll complete our look at why COEs fail with reasons 6-8.

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