3 ways to Start a Competency Center: #2 Bottom-Up

on April 13, 2011
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Following up on the Monday’s Competency Center post — the Top-Down approach –, I’ll now share some experience on another typical approach I have seen in action.

The Bottom-Up Approach

In many cases, Competency Centers are launched as a result of a project then another and possibly a third one starting within an Enterprise using the same technology.  Under the leadership of a champion, with or without upper management’s endorsement, a team gets assigned the responsibility to collect and publish best practices related to the said technology.

The motivation and expertise of the team is clearly not to question in those instances.  All participants are true practitioners coming from the trenches getting together physically or virtually to share war stories.  I love the passion and energy from those groups that have concrete stories to share, proven best practices and ad-hoc techniques for getting the job done.  They also come with dreadful stories sometimes and real problems they need to get addressed.  Those discussions are intellectually stimulating for the problem-solvers we are.

Let me elaborate on that format that worked quite well.

Funding the initiative

It may be more laborious to get funding for this form of Center of Excellence — in some extreme cases I have seen teams so dedicated to succeed they spurred this effort unofficially without any specific funding.  Those Centers of Excellence tend to be a little less ambitious on the Grand Scheme of Things.  They start with the strong desire to capitalize on the collective’s experience and save everyone’s time and aggravation.

I have participated in some brown-bag sessions that only borrowed time out of the team’s personal lunch hour.  That helped get some awareness within the organization.  It was certainly on the low-end of the spectrum.

Most customers I was involved with organized more intensive brainstorming sessions that captured expertise from all participants and discussed problems and/or solutions for real projects.  Having dedicated resources for the Competency Center accelerates dramatically the pace of conversations.  Think of it as an engine pulling relentlessly all participants back into the discussion.  I have seen places where the role of the center was to host and “project manage” the effort, and some other places where the center was led by the best experts for that technology in the company.  Both approaches have worked when the team was passionate and energetic enough to herd for the former or lead for the latter.

Resource Sharing

Enterprise Architecture is often the primary owner of the Decision Management Center of Excellence (CoE).  As this group defines the overall architecture for the software infrastructure, it also recommends an architecture for the deployment of Decision Services and potentially best practices on the repository structure and business user interface.  I expect that Business Analysts will slowly take ownership of those CoEs for the latter if that is not yet the case.

Another reason for Enterprise Architecture to own this role is that they tend to contribute resources — which is a great way to acquire the hands-on experience.  In the Top-Down example I used to illustrate the earlier post, the CoE team did not actively participate other than in a training and “hot-line” role — which is not necessarily a feature of all Top-Down CoEs I must admit, just happened to be one of this company’s.  As developers and architects in the CoE develop new projects, they get a better appreciation for the diversity of the projects as well as their commonality.  They certainly bring the expertise that they have personally accumulated but they also get an opportunity to improve their own skills thanks to that diversity.

Most architects have a knack for frameworks too.  As they pinpoint the commonality of the projects they work on as well as they areas of divergence, they are able to develop reusable frameworks that can speed up subsequent projects.  If you are lucky, you may even find some Product Managers that would consider integrating those functionalities back into the commercial product so that you do not have to maintain the customization.  This was certainly one of the reasons I was invited to a lot of those sessions.  As a vendor, it is an incredible source of input for the roadmap so, added to my insatiable appetite for brilliant conversations, I never turned down an offer to participate in a User Group or Center of Excellence.

Knowledge base

I love that quote from Michael Polanyi:

We know more than we can tell

I love it because it emphasizes one of the key challenges for a Decision Management practice: “how do you elicit your Business Rules?”

I am also intellectually interested in the various ways we can capture and share our Corporate Knowledge at large, focusing here on best practices.  In a recent talk at Directions 2011, Andrew McAfee illustrated very appropriately that challenge by asking the audience if they would feel capable of cooking as well as a renowned Chef by reading and studying obsessively one of his or her book?  My 3 brothers being French Chefs, I could relate very well…  I am proud of my cooking but I am not delusional enough to thing I can cook nearly as well as any of them!  It is hard to capture the expertise *and* it is hard to transfer that knowledge to someone else via documentation alone.

Over the past few years, many technologies have addressed parts of that challenge:

  • a Corporate Wiki might be a great start for documented best practices and some tips and tricks
  • a Social Platform allows practitioners to “shape their serendipity” i.e. to notify the collective of their activities or issues in order for someone with relevant information to step forward and contribute, ranging from just a piece of information to a vested interest to get fully involved

Intranets were an early attempt.  Social technologies provide a stronger and more dynamic fabric for knowledge exchange.  I am a strong believer in Collaborative tools and techniques.  I think they can complement very well the hard work of a Center of Excellence.  Once the members are introduced to each other, Social technologies allows those conversations to continue on a regular basis.

What I would watch out for

I already talked about the lack of funding and/or upper management endorsement.

The main pitfall I have seen over the years was the misalignment of expectations.  The CoE may start with the ambition to capture and spread best practices but may end up as a hotline for corporate users.  One specific CoE effort I have in mind turned into weekly or bi-weekly calls with only a handful of people showing up with one “bug” they were trying to get help for.  As the CoE leader, it is critical to set clear guidelines and expectations and to detect that the dynamics are changing so that you can be everyone back on track.

What was your experience?

In the next post I will talk about yet another approach that is a little “outside the box”.

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