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Grassroots COE

November 8, 2010

I’ve written quite a bit here about centers of excellence (COEs) and how they can contribute to the organization. And while some of my posts focused on the practical, tactical aspects of building COEs, the perspective was overwhelmingly an enterprise one that assumed centralized (or at least formal) support for the COE concept at the organization.

But many COE efforts happen in a less formal arena, without top down (or even mid-level) support. Often the COE starts when an IT application manager gets the OK from their boss to hold stakeholder meetings to talk about improvements to the application, discuss open defects and the remediation efforts to close them, or to train end users as a group during brown bag sessions.

With that reality in mind, I wanted to write a bit about how I’ve seen grassroots COE efforts succeed, both within IT departments and as a consultant outsider, because getting a COE started through grassroots efforts may be the only way to do so in today’s world of tight (or nonexistent) IT spend.

Let’s use the example of a digital asset management (DAM) system and see what an IT application owner can do to develop a COE around DAM at her organization.

Find your end users

The first step is to determine who the end users for the application are. This is somewhat obvious, but harder than it sounds. In IT, we tend to have a limited view of our end users: we’re aware of those who complain the most and those we get along with well; but those who don’t contact us or who we don’t know personally often stay beneath the radar.

And this doesn’t mean they’re happy (or even generally satisfied) with our app. They may use it through gritted teeth because it works so poorly for them—but feel that telling IT gets them nothing. They may not use it much because they don’t fully understand how—but feel that IT has no time to train end users. Or they may be fully satisfied, regular users who just happen not to contact IT.

In the case of DAM, power users such as marketing or creative services may be frequent partners, but other groups, such as corporate communications, training, the web team, etc. may also be DAM end users who are unknown to you.

Whatever the case may be, in order to build a successful grassroots COE effort, you need to be aware of all the end users of your application so that you can bring them into the COE process.

Engage your end users

Once you have a feel for who all is using your application, you need to engage them to determine which of them would be candidates for COE membership, both in terms of their availability and willingness to participate.

A good way to start this process is with a “get to know you” meeting over a lunch hour. The main goal is to get all your end users in a room together so that you can introduce yourself to those who don’t know you already, let all your end users meet each other if they don’t already know each other, have a discussion about what the role of a COE might be, and gauge what interest these folks have in participating and supporting your efforts.

It’s also a good idea at this point to avoid COE language and instead stick to informal terminology like user group, as it tends to be less intimidating and confusing. At many organizations, simply using the term COE can get you mired down in philosophical and political discussions about the viability of COEs in general, past failed efforts, and so on—all of which is appropriate later on in the COE development process when you define goals. For now, however, you just want to gather folks in a room to get to know each other and talk a bit about how this “user group” might meet their needs.

In terms of our DAM example, the end users might suggest things like sharing tricks and tips, trying to standardize classification or metadata so that assets can be more readily shared, desired functionality improvements, business case or metrics, and so on.

Define and articulate your goals

In order for a COE to succeed, everyone has to be on the same page, so at this point, it’s important to get very intentional about what the goals of the group are and are not. This is especially important to do with a grassroots approach, because the consensus-driven, let’s-all-roll-up-our-sleeves-and-contribute mentality can lead to way too many cooks in the kitchen, all with their own agenda for participating.

It’s also more difficult to do, because your authority as organizer is likely to be informal: you have no real organizational mandate to create the COE (other than permission from your boss), so you can’t tell people what to do or how to do it—you need to persuade them.

That having been said, you need to make sure the COE that emerges is valuable for you, the organization as a whole, and the participants as individuals. Goal setting will help ensure that you’re able to do this—or at least be able to pack up and go home if you can’t before too much time and effort has been expended.

And once you settle on a set of goals, you need to articulate them in a document, whether a formal charter or simply a short vision statement (or something in between).

For our hypothetical DAM group, goals might be to share knowledge and experience and to raise organizational awareness of the importance of DAM to the larger goals of the organization.

Get tactical

By now, you have everything in place to transition from planning to doing, so get tactical. Be very specific about what’s expected from the group as a whole and from each member; about how the planned activities of the group (meetings, deliverables, presentations, etc.) support the goals you’ve articulated; and about the success factors for the group, i.e., the ways you’ll measure how successful you’ve been.

For the DAM example, this might mean weekly lunch and learns where the application owner answers end-user questions and demonstrates features and functionality, quarterly steering committee meetings where the performance and future direction of the group are discussed, and ongoing special projects (e.g., working groups to look into the cost/benefits of upgrading to a new version or adopting a metadata standard).

The final word

If this post makes it sound easy, it’s not. Getting a COE off the ground using grassroots efforts takes a lot of work from everyone involved and represents a major commitment on the part of the main organizer(s). But I’ve made it work myself and seen it work many times in my day-to-day travels as a consultant. And if you folks out there have experiences (positive or negative) with grassroots COEs, jump in and share with the group…let’s get the conversation started.

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