Best Practices for Sustaining Centers of Excellence to Support a Culture of CX

Introduction

Improving customer experience (CX) is crucial for agency transformation and government innovation today. As agencies face new mandates and higher customer expectations, Centers of Excellence (COEs) and Communities of Practice (COPs) are essential means of facilitating the knowledge sharing that leads to innovation and better mission outcomes.   

These communities bring together individuals across organizations to help develop and disseminate best practices, expertise, and innovative solutions within a particular domain or function. As centralized hubs for knowledge, resources, and guidance, they enable members to exchange insights, solve problems, and collectively develop their skills.

At REI Systems, we are experts in helping transform agency operations through strategic collaboration, technology, and innovation. A key to our success in this complex work is establishing and operationalizing COEs/COPs. Our partnership with the General Services Administration (GSA) exemplifies this approach. We have helped create multiple COPs of federal practitioners focused on simplifying IT modernization, enhancing acquisition intelligence, and increasing IT transparency. We strongly believe
in these communities’ power, and REI hosts several of our own COPs tied to both our core capabilities and emerging technologies.

This model of knowledge-sharing success, characterized by extending GSA’s reach and resources among the federal IT community, is something we’re poised to replicate with other agencies.   

Following the Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government1, published Dec. 12, 2021, agencies are seeking to reinvent themselves for the digital age to make their services simpler, more intuitive, and aligned with citizen expectations. Establishing and maintaining COEs/COPs expedite the knowledge sharing we know to be critical for innovating at speed and scale.

In this paper, we share our best practices for establishing and maintaining COEs/COPs and leveraging their role in supporting a culture that prioritizes CX. We hope this knowledge is valuable to agencies moving through their respective journeys to providing better CX.

 

Best Practices for Establishing/Formalizing a COE/COP

Whether setting up a formalized hub for knowledge sharing or nurturing a network of like-minded professionals, the best practices for establishing a COE or COP are the same. They blend elements of leadership, strategic planning, and operational best practices. REI found the following elements essential for success:

Fostering Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing
REI’s work with GSA to create COPs highlights the benefits of diverse expertise. For instance, the Cloud and Infrastructure COP serves as a model for COEs and fosters a culture of sharing best practices in cloud adoption, migration, and management.

We use platforms like knowledge-sharing events, forums, and listservs, enabling experts to exchange insights and strategies on cloud technologies. These efforts increased communication and collaboration across the community, resulting in advances in IT modernization initiatives across federal agencies.

We extended this model to two additional COPs: the Federal Technology Investment Management (FTIM) COP and the IT Buyer’s COP, which consolidated forums and working groups to enhance their impact.

Our expert-led training program equips COP/COE members to tackle emerging challenges, promoting continuous improvement and innovation. For the Cloud and Infrastructure COP, REI provided training resources and logistical support, making all materials accessible in a central repository.

REI learned from GSA that promoting a knowledge-sharing culture is crucial for sparking innovation and enhancing services. We encourage agencies to create forums where staff can share best practices and collaborate on solutions, leveraging collective knowledge for better customer experiences.

We use tools like whiteboarding and polls at GSA, along with breakout networking and working groups, to boost collaboration. These sessions usually occur monthly, though frequency may vary.

Effective COE/COP structures are vital. We recommend establishing an Executive Committee of key stakeholders and CX experts to oversee COE/COP activities. This committee should guide discussions, allocate resources, and communicate progress, with clear roles and responsibilities outlined in a formal charter.

Taking a Customer-First Approach
The first question we always answer is, “How will this help improve CX?”

Top-down strategies have limited effectiveness. REI instead advocates for a “bottom-up” approach, prioritizing the end user’s needs in every COE/COP initiative. We do this through advisory panels, user surveys, feedback loops, user-centric design workshops, and similar user-first mechanisms (although end users aren’t actual members of the COE/COP). Through this hands-on approach, REI helps agencies create services and systems that genuinely meet user needs, boosting customer satisfaction and trust.

With GSA COPs, we help create resources and artifacts such as playbooks, best practices guides, training, and events as part of our approach.

Remember, we’re all managing an incoming rush of information about new technologies, methodologies, processes, approaches, etc. By keeping a customer-centric approach, the COP/COE creates actionable, valuable resources – written in plain language – that resonate with the intended audience. This reduces the risk of project failure. Ultimately, everything the COE/COP produces ties to the mission, program, and customer-focused services.

Leadership and Momentum
Effective leadership engagement requires more than initial support; it demands ongoing commitment and resources to ensure the COE/COP aligns with and supports broader organizational goals, embedding its work into the agency’s mission. A COE/COP’s success hinges on strong support from leaders and enthusiasm throughout the agency.

REI knows how crucial it is for leaders to communicate clearly and energetically — and openly foster a culture of innovation and teamwork. Identifying potential issues early and discerning how to maintain momentum are vital steps in starting and managing these communities. By setting up specialized groups or sub-COPs, REI can help agencies customize their approach to meet particular needs, ensuring strategies can flex and adapt as needed.

A dynamic roadmap detailing the COE/COP’s objectives, timelines, and resources acts as a blueprint for success. This roadmap should be adaptable to allow for policy and strategy shifts based on continuous feedback and evolving customer needs. Establishing clear metrics and regular progress reviews ensures accountability and measures success.

Benefits of COEs/COPs

Establishing and maintaining a COE/COP can be a powerful way to foster collaboration, support knowledge sharing, and enhance innovation.

  • COEs/COPs catalyze change within agencies by standardizing processes, driving innovation, and promoting a user-centric approach. They improve collaboration, breaking down silos for a more unified and effective agency. To develop a specific operations guide, REI formed a working group under GSA’s Cloud and Infrastructure COP, uniting 82 federal IT experts to ensure the playbook reflected diverse needs and perspectives.
  • COPs that adopt a community-driven approach focus on allocating resources to initiatives and developing tools that genuinely address the community’s needs, resulting in meaningful outcomes.
  • Methods that prioritize customer needs and facilitate lesson sharing pave the way for genuine innovation. CX integrates people, processes, and technology. REI monitors key areas like legislation and best practices, staying attuned to the ecosystem. We engage the community with challenges and rewards, fostering a culture of innovation.

 

COE/COPs’ Role in Supporting the Culture of CX

CX is important to the success of every agency. Customer-focused intuitive and empathic processes create a less confrontational atmosphere, build greater public trust, and ultimately propel the agency to greater mission success.

Such significant changes demand more than technological solutions. Advocating for a customer-first culture ensures people remain at the forefront, guiding the needed changes and reducing the risk of failure. The COE/COP is the heart of this cultural transformation.

Policy, Implementation, and Digital Transformation
Establishing a COE/COP gives agencies a forum to set and spread CX standards, ultimately changing the face of customer interactions. By enforcing strict governance, the COE/COP will ensure standards are consistently followed by defining specific guidelines for service delivery and customer interactions, making every encounter smoother and better.

Fostering a Culture of Continuous Improvement
By promoting close cooperation across agency departments, the COE/COP will pinpoint specific CX challenges and opportunities, enabling the agency to develop bespoke solutions to elevate customer satisfaction. This requires a bottom-up approach that gathers and disseminates insights across the organization to inform improvements in service delivery.

Committing to Ongoing Improvement and Innovation
Innovation and service improvement are never-ending journeys. Recognizing this, we focus on helping agencies incorporate COEs/COPs designed to evolve as customer expectations shift and new technologies emerge. We want agencies to access the latest tools, training, and strategies to stay ahead of the curve.

Our work with GSA led to significant strides in this direction. By setting clear guidelines, creating valuable resources, and facilitating engaging events, we helped shape responsive and dynamic COEs/COPs. Establishing focused subcommittees also allowed for more specific support and expertise, enabling agency leaders to commit to meeting end-user needs effectively and iteratively.

Our extensive experience in developing COEs/COPs has yielded a wealth of best practices and insights. Collaborating closely with agency leaders, stakeholders, and customers, we’ve identified key challenges and opportunities to improve services. This hands-on approach enabled us to assist agencies in designing COEs/COPs that meet customer needs and effectively deliver services.

 

 

Conclusion

By working together with agencies to enhance operations through establishing, formalizing, and operationalizing a COE/COP, we can simplify processes and make them more streamlined and straightforward for everyone involved.

This effort goes beyond simply improving services; it’s about supporting a culture of CX.

As a trusted partner, REI leverages our expertise and successful, proven models of innovation and collaboration, as demonstrated through our work with GSA and others. We’re here to guide and support agencies in this transformative journey, and deploy effective COEs/COPs that foster collaboration, support knowledge sharing, and improve innovation.

Together, we can pave the way for a modernized agency responsive to the needs of the digital age.

 

1 See: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/12/13/executive-order-on-transforming-federal-customer-experience-and-service-delivery-to-rebuild-trust-in-government/.

 

Authors:

Sandra Gerges
Customer Experience (CX) Lead
Connect on LinkedIn

 

Eric Co
Deputy Director of Advisory Services
Connect on LinkedIn

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