How to drive digital transformation via technology Centers of Excellence (COE)

Implementing technologies such as Kubernetes and AI/ML tools can benefit from a Center of Excellence approach. Here's how to set up a CoE to provide the tooling, people, and processes necessary to drive lasting business value
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Rocket coming out of computer to represent moving faster in digital transformation

Introducing new technology into the enterprise has never been for the faint of heart – particularly when the solutions have the potential to radically change the way an organization delivers its capabilities. In the grand scheme of enterprise-class technology adoption, most organizations are still early in their cloud-native containerization journeys, exploring artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning, leveraging IoT, optimizing DevOps, and even establishing cloud strategies. Why do solutions such as these benefit from a disciplined approach? Establishing a core foundation provides the tooling, people, and processes you need to drive lasting business value for customers and shareholders - an environment well-suited for successful adoption of game-changing solutions. This means investing in an organizational construct such as a business technology Center of Excellence (CoE). Let’s explore how to establish just such an organization.

Through the years, the general concept of a business technology CoE has been incorporated into everything from a skunkworks-oriented IT research & development team to full-fledged enterprise architecture organizations to today’s “innovation” teams. Sometimes these teams constantly assess trends in business technology and make enterprise usage recommendations. Other times they document and establish governance over the business, organizational, and technical constructs of a corporation.

A well-defined Center of Excellence (CoE) remains focused on the value the technology provides to the business.

Challenges arise when these teams do not fully establish the connection between the new technologies and their ongoing, proactive, and immediate strategic value to the business. A well-defined CoE with a specific mission addresses both the tactical and strategic issues associated with implementing new solutions while remaining focused on the value the technology provides to the business.

[ Want best practices for AI workloads? Get the eBook: Top considerations for building a production-ready AI/ML environment. ]

How to staff a CoE and define the mission

Regardless of the technology, begin by considering how the CoE will be staffed. The core team should consist of passionate, experienced professionals who have an understanding of many technology domains as well as a solid grasp of the business. Although technology for technology’s sake may be fun for some engineers, this does not help the organization’s core mission of serving its customers.

Team leaders must be willing to push boundaries and engage in new methods to expand the business.

Like any high-profile transformational initiative, it should be led by those willing to push boundaries and engage in new methods to expand the business. This initial team will morph into the internal enterprise “consultants” who will be charged with driving change, so they need to have credibility and influence with both business and IT teams. From a practical standpoint, the enterprise architecture team may have the most qualified candidates to get started. A DevOps architect or site reliability engineer (SRE) will be crucial as well to ensure that automation and communications between the various parties involved in building and supporting the solutions are addressed. (We'll discuss suggestions for staffing additional roles and responsibilities beyond the CoE leadership later.)

The graphic below demonstrates an organizational model as well as the functional considerations that need to be addressed when introducing new business technology into the enterprise. As with any enterprise initiative, it starts with an examination and understanding of the business priorities. This enables the team to focus their efforts on the greatest opportunities for new technology to play a transformative role.

COE organization

This understanding will then drive the situations, scenarios, and business problems to which the new technology can be applied. Depending on the technology in question, these two CoE elements can actually drive each other. For example, the need to more immediately deliver new capabilities to end users might drive the streamlining of application delivery via Kubernetes-native solutions.

Conversely, the innovation being delivered by suppliers of Kubernetes-based solutions might inspire the desire to transform application delivery such that new capabilities can be implemented more rapidly, thereby reshuffling business priorities based on the art of the possible. It may be considered blasphemous in some organizations, but there is nothing wrong with an emerging technology solution looking for business problems to solve. I look at this as the opportunity for the IT organization to take some inspiration from Steve Jobs and bring the business some solutions that it needed before the business knew that they were needed – or even possible. The business initiative and technology domain decisions will in effect become the organizational charter for the CoE and therefore define its mission.

[ How did Adobe CIO Cynthia Stoddard tap into the power of COEs? Read also: Adobe CIO: How we scaled RPA with a Center of Excellence. ]

Four key areas the CoE should address

Once the mission is established, the CoE must address four areas in order to ensure enterprise-class implementation. Some must be addressed prior to others, but all must be taken into consideration from the beginning. Although there is minimal overlap in terms of purpose, they are complementary and are all required. The graphic shows these four disciplines as well as examples of responsibilities and deliverables that are produced from each.

1. Architecture

Architecture establishes the proverbial “rules of the road” that guide decision-making and link the actual technical solution back to the business priorities. Architecture includes the organizational thought leadership and evangelism that will drive adoption of the technology. Deliverables will include proofs of concept and prototypes that address specific business problems and serve as models for development teams, the selection of the technology best suited for the organization, and a detailed understanding of the business value derived from the investment in the technology. Best practices can also begin to take shape, such as these described by Red Hat senior specialist solution architect Stephen Nimmo in this blog on seven standards to establish before moving workloads onto a Kubernetes platform. This function should be executed by the CoE leadership described earlier. A combination of business leaders and architects set the overall direction of the CoE and lead execution.

[ Want to learn more? Get the free O'Reilly eBooks: Kubernetes Operators: Automating the Container Orchestration Platform and  Kubernetes patterns for designing cloud-native apps. ]

2. Solution development

Even if the bulk of the solution is acquired from suppliers rather than built in-house, attention has to be paid to ensure that the implementation of the business functionality is done in a consistent and repeatable fashion. These areas would typically be addressed by the development leads responsible for understanding the deep technical details of the technology, the optimal methods and nuances involved in deploying and reusing its components, and ensuring that the solution is well-tested and exercised before it is used by the organization.

If, for example, the CoE is focused on the business process management (BPM) technology domain, these individuals would understand how to use the BPM tooling to map business processes, pass the appropriate business information between systems and humans, and know all of the application integration details (service definitions, etc.). The architecture and solution development teams should strive to ensure that their efforts leverage any procedural and cultural methods already in place at the organization. For example, if already using agile methods, these teams would seek to include product owners, develop epics and stories to drive implementation, etc. In fact, the principles of the Agile Manifesto provide excellent guidance to ensure that the CoE is efficiently delivering value, but we’ll leave agile, design thinking, DevOps, and other ideation, development, or delivery methods for another time.

3. Infrastructure

This includes everything that ensures the establishment of an enterprise-class foundation for the technology and the business solutions to be built upon it. It includes defining and deploying installation and configuration procedures for the technology stack to provide a highly available, scalable, recoverable, and secure environment. These responsibilities would be executed by individuals such as systems administrators or SREs who understand capacity planning and all aspects of infrastructure management. They would ensure that the solution adheres to established enterprise IT standards and reuses existing corporate IT resources - servers, network, storage, databases, application servers, middleware, etc. - to the greatest extent possible.

4. Post-implementation solution support

The fourth category, post-implementation solution support, should be addressed far prior to the actual implementation. As critical as the solution is to the achievement of business priorities, systems and personnel need to be in place to ensure that it is functioning optimally. This includes having the ability to monitor the solution from a performance, availability, and functionality perspective as well as ensuring the proactive escalation and resolution of any issues. Depending on the organization, this function may be performed by the same professionals responsible for the infrastructure area of concern above (i.e., Infrastructure & Operations, or “I&O” teams). Similarly, any monitoring, service request management, and escalation systems already in place for the existing enterprise IT environment would be utilized for the new technology as well.

Mind your relationships and partnerships

Finally, pervasive across all threads of the CoE are education and the partnership with suppliers. Regardless of whether responsibilities fall upon architects, developers, or I&O professionals, enablement is absolutely essential to establish the foundation for the new solutions as well as to ensure its delivery of long-term business value. Culturally, an investment in the skills of employees in emerging technologies lessens the chances that they will take their newly acquired expertise to competitors.

When it comes to relationships with suppliers, few things get enterprise technology vendors more excited than having clients who partner throughout implementation and allow them to ensure that the enterprise is getting maximum business value from their investment. This includes leveraging the vendor’s professional services to ensure successful implementation and knowledge transfer as well as regular, ongoing conversations with the sales team. I can personally attest that helping customers utilize technology to solve business problems is the primary motivation for most individuals engaged in the industry. Knowing customers’ business functions are being enabled by their offerings is a significant point of pride for technology suppliers.

Although the graphic does not represent it, there is a perpetual cycle of activities through each of these areas. New experiences are introduced as the team and the solutions evolve and these can iteratively drive more business value and efficiency. Once the CoE has achieved its initial mission and a few solutions have been rolled into production, individuals from the architecture and solution development teams would remain in place and continue to act as internal consultants and evangelists to spread the technology and its business benefits to drive mass adoption across the enterprise. The professionals focused on infrastructure and solution support will have successfully integrated the new technology into the enterprise’s IT operations and would take on less of a role in driving further adoption as they focus primarily on the I&O function.

Obviously, technology itself cannot transform a business, nor take it to the next level of success. As Jim Collins articulates in his perennial best-seller, "Good To Great," however, technology can become the accelerator that enables the transformation. Establishing a Center of Excellence that enables dedicated professionals to focus on applying a specific technology domain to business problems will better enable the organization to reap greater benefits from its investment in the technology.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

Doug Allen is a Senior Manager, Solution Architecture for Red Hat and a husband and father from Des Moines, IA. He leads teams that help forward-thinking organizations design and deploy enterprise-class business technology solutions. He's excited the Foo Fighters are on tour – and he's very eager to return to in-person collaboration with his team and customers.