Centres of Excellence - a sound philosophy?

Dating back to the mid-nineties the UK Government essentially ‘led the charge’ in setting a trend of establishing corporate centres of excellence (COE) in the discipline of project, programme and portfolio delivery. However the original concept, ‘borrowed’ from academia, sports and medical environments was adapted; rather than identifying and promoting best practice the primary thrust (according to the OGC pocket book) was to provide ‘oversight, scrutiny and challenge’.

Now, nearly twenty years later, it may be timely to review whether the considerable investment is yielding an appropriate return. It would probably be equally useful to discuss, if not set, the agenda going forward.

Centres of Excellence

Conceptually a COE is simple; a focal point for the assessment, capture and sharing of the best of practices available in the discipline area with the intent of driving overall performance up. This is how world records keep getting broken and pioneering surgical techniques advance; ‘top-slicing’ talent rather than ‘bottom-slicing’ incompetence is the aim of effective COEs.

The difficulty is translating this ambition into practical day-to-day activity – who does what and under what authority? In providing guidance on this the Cabinet Office focused predominantly on the audit and review process offered under the aegis of the Gateway Review scheme. Whilst mention was made of improving delivery capability and performance this was relegated to a phase two activity once the COE had established a sound footing of review.

Sadly audit and review, the dominant themes of the Gateway process, do not add value; they simply guard against it being lost by reducing the likelihood of ‘downstream’ failure. To add value it is necessary to improve inputs to a process in advance rather than inspect the consequences post process. Outside the P3M community COEs that flourish identify best practice, analyse it and then effectively embed this into the future process – this is not about stopping failure but aggrandising success; growing excellence.

Arguably this is something that the phase one COEs were ill-equipped to achieve. The question remains; how many have effectively transitioned into phase two and started to realise their potential?

What’s working?

The main thrust of the original OGC remit, by some considerable way, was the introduction of a range of reviews. These have been widely adopted and have, doubtless (despite several high profile examples) reduced the tax-payers’ burden of cost in failed projects and programmes. Some have even moved visibly towards the attainment of phase two type capability improvement among the P3M community. We are eager to identify and discuss the promoters and inhibitors of this transition.

What’s not?

What still seem to be absent are any clear paragons of excellence. Have we seen a COE that has identified ‘best in breed’ practices and behaviours and established a reliable mechanism to disseminate them, effectively, into the wider corporate or national P3M community? If you can talk, from experience, about capturing such rewards you will have a keen audience.