The Differences Between a Community of Practice and a Center of Excellence

Photo by Celestine Chua

Photo by Celestine Chua

If you are working in an organization, you might be thinking about how to share practices across agile teams.  Agile teams inspect and adapt over time, using retrospectives in particular to change their behaviors and practices with the goal of improving.  A team improving is great, and it would be awesome for that team to share what they’ve learned so that others can benefit.  To encourage good practices across teams, organizations often establish centers of excellence or communities of practice.  I recommend creating communities of practice, but what's the difference?

Communities of practice are groups of people with similar interests who share experiences with a common goal of improving.  People talk to one another and learn from each other.  All levels of expertise are welcomed, and all experiences can provide learning.  A community of practice can work together to solve a problem and adopt a common solution if the community agrees to do so.

In contrast, a center of excellence implies that a smaller group recommends (or even requires) certain practices or templates be used.  The leaders of the center of excellence have authority.  Experience sharing may not be welcomed if it is not aligned with the leaders’ views.  There is a sense that excellence comes from applying the same behaviors and practices across teams.  Maybe a center of excellence is a good starting point for an organization, but communities of practice hold more possibility for learning and applying of practices.

Am I saying that a community of practice is better than a center of excellence?  In my opinion, yes.  There’s goodness in sharing experiences and ideas as peers that comes from being part of a community.  The safety of community allows for deeper sharing and exploring of ideas.  Communities of practice support adult learning and promote ownership of ideas—what’s not to love about that? 

"Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I learn." --Benjamin Franklin

The differences between a center of excellence and a community of practice in your organization might not be as black and white as I describe them, but many organizations that I’ve seen are more comfortable creating centers of excellence than communities of practice.  Leaders feel assurance that only the best practices will be spread through centers of excellence.  Self-organizing communities are unpredictable and rely on some experimentation to encourage learning.  And that's precisely where the goodness lives.   Go ahead: embrace community.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.