Today, many organizations build and roll out their implementation of a modern digital workspace, and most use Microsoft 365 as the underlying foundation. Although Microsoft 365 is an excellent offering to create a tailored work environment, organizations also need options to customize their environment. Customization includes corporate colours, branding and options to add custom functionality. Prominent examples for those customizations are electronic forms and workflows. For example, think of a form employees use if they request permission to take their corporate laptop outside of the country if they want/need to work in another country for a specific time. This solution is considered customization because the functionality isn't available out-of-the-box (OOTB) in Microsoft 365. The mentioned solution includes an electronic form and a few workflows built using PowerApps and Power Automate.
Power Platform (which includes PowerApps and Power Automate) is the tool of choice for any M365-related customization. However, Power Platform is also considered a development environment for apps, flows and other artifacts like PowerBI reports or portals. Unfortunately, many employees shy away from development environments, and Power Platform is no different. Many organizations struggle with Power Platform user adoption and attempt to counteract this with increased change management activities. Although tailored change management activities are widely accepted as established best-practice, there is something else that — if implemented correctly — can accelerate user acceptance of Power Platform: a Center of Excellence!
What is a Center of Excellence?
There is no set-in-stone definition of a COE (Center of Excellence) because it all depends on where a COE should be used, who is supposed to use it, and how a COE should support employees. My definition of a Center of Excellence is this: a COE is a tailored implementation of a corporate knowledge center that provides detailed information and knowledge on a specific topic and allows employees to retrieve the knowledge based on a self-serve approach. It is also a platform to establish a corporate community that can drive user adoption and advancement. A Center of Excellence — as I understand it — is an excellent option for organizations to engage employees with a new platform or technology instead of just providing them with a new tool that allegedly eases their daily business.
How can a COE accelerate user adoption?
To answer that question, we must first focus on why there are issues with user adoption. So, first, let us look at roles in an organization and their most common issues:
- Stakeholders/SMEs need to decide whether to use Power Platform to implement a specific solution. Often, stakeholders don't feel familiar with the capabilities of Power Platform and the user experience of apps and flows. Their lack of experience with Power Platform makes it hard to decide whether to use Power Platform or switch to a different approach. In addition, the lack of knowledge regarding Power Platform capabilities can also lead to wrong decisions, which might negatively impact Power Platform user adoption.
- Developers create the apps and flows. Although many have expert knowledge, they need technical support (such as approved reference architectures or branding guidelines) and a forum to exchange ideas and inspiration.
- Users/Employees use artifacts similar to apps and flows in their daily business. Most employees need support regarding using the artifacts and the platform. Also, they need an option to suggest improvements and to discuss potential improvements with others. If done right, Power Platform spurs creativity and ideas for improvements!
- Entity Managers own a Power Platform environment (or multiple environments), and Entity Managers (like team leads or department managers) are responsible for managing their environments. They require guidance on managing environments (like best practices for providing access) and artifacts (like license distribution and publication).
- Platform Administrators are responsible for managing Power Platform to ensure the platform is used based on corporate guidelines and policies. In addition, they require an easy-to-use option to share important information with all Power Platform users.
- IT Help Desks are often members of a corporate helpdesk who create their own quick reference guides, listing common problems and related solutions. Although this is great to provide users with quick (and approved) solutions to common problems, those lists should not be kept among IT Help Desk members. Instead, they should be published to enable users to find approved solutions to their problems independently. Still, if published as an independent knowledge area (e.g., within a separate Corporate IT Helpdesk site), valuable context information gets lost.
- Corporate Committees, such as corporate governance committees, usually work from corporate governance documents. They also need an easy-to-use option to share corporate governance policies with users. Suppose this is done in an old-fashioned manner by sharing an extensive document hosted in a corporate document repository. In that case, employees likely disregard the document as it is too time-consuming to read. A modern approach with multimedia elements ensures that policies are easier to consume and foster user adoption. Still, a current process requires a multimedia-based knowledge center platform.
If a COE is well-maintained and structured, members of the above roles can either share information with others in a modern fashion or find the information and support they need quickly. Also, a COE provides options for all employees to connect and share knowledge and help each other. In other words: think of a Power Platform COE as the central place of truth for all things related to Power Platform in an organization. User adoption is mainly enhanced because of two facts: employees can easily share information to be effortless for others to digest. On the other hand, employees can use a well-structured COE to quickly find information without being forced to start extensive research.
How is a COE structured and implemented?
Even though the previous section of this article compares a COE to a knowledge center, a COE is much more. Still, there is nothing like a "most useful structure." The detailed internal structure of a COE depends on many factors, but there is an approach that many COE implementations use, although it might not be a perfect fit for all COEs. A COE should consist of five parts:
- Knowledge library: Containing written documentation on various topics, including job aids, step-by-step instructions and technical explanation. Even code samples can be provided to ensure developers don't reinvent the wheel.
- Artifact area: Providing a list of existing and in-progress artifacts (such as apps and flows), their use case and a description. Also, each artifact provides information concerning who is responsible for the app and who developed the artifact (or solution).
- Training area: Providing a specific area within the COE focused on training (recorded training, training material downloads, and options to book specific training sessions). In addition, this area could include presentations and demos, which are used during training. If demos are made available to users, demo artifact owners are advised to maintain a backup to restore a demo if it becomes corrupted.
- Social interaction: Enabling options to chat with others on various topics. Creating a clear channel structure is recommended to ensure chats and discussions focus on specific topics.
- Help request options: Providing access to specific forms users can complete to request help from the corporate Help Desk (for technical issues), schedule an artifact review or ask for a document update.
Looking at the suggested structure above, it becomes clear that a COE uses different Microsoft 365 services. For example, the knowledge library can be created within a SharePoint Online site. The training area also uses SharePoint Online (with Stream to host videos). The social interaction can be implemented using Yammer (or Microsoft Teams), and the help request section could consist of PowerApps forms and Power Automate workflows.
What information should be hosted in a COE?
As I mentioned earlier, there is no specific plan to create a COE. Each COE should be designed to best support employees, and as every organization is different, so are COEs. Still, when looking at a Power Platform COE, here are suggestions on what to add.
- Organizational information that concerns general usage of the platform, corporate guidelines and governance policies. To foster a community, organizations can add a list of available artifacts and artifacts currently in development. Users can easily connect with stakeholders if a responsible stakeholder and a brief description are added to each artifact. Another critical topic to be added here is corporate governance. I recommend publishing the corporate governance document here, so all employees can quickly look up policies and explanations. This section can also include a list of approved connectors and a link to a form to request new connectors.
- Development information regarding corporate branding, a detailed description of reference architectures, and potential approval or review procedures. In addition, a section on best practices and lessons learned from other developers ensures that other developers can learn from other projects. Sometimes, a section on known pitfalls and how to avoid them is also added. Finally, suppose developers experience unusual behaviour or even recognize a bug? In that case, a section on getting help and filing a ticket with the Microsoft Power Platform support is deemed helpful.
- Training information, including all training-related information and recorded training sessions. Most organizations provide training for users, developers and platform administrators. Often, training sessions are recorded. In this section, employees can access all training sessions and training materials. This information is beneficial for new hires to onboard how Power Platform is supposed to be used. Again, Microsoft Stream is a great option to host those training videos.
- Usage information, providing general usage information of Power Platform and organizational strategies and expectations. In other words: information on how Power Platform is supposed to be used in the organization. In addition, examples of successful artifacts and artifacts that have been created based on different technology can provide helpful information for stakeholders/SMEs to decide whether Power Platform is the right platform for their project. This section could also provide support by sharing how to find artifacts, access environments, and linked repositories. If required, information related to connector and gateway usage can be added.
- Optional administrative information would only be helpful for Power Platform administrators and might confuse many employees. If SharePoint Online hosts the COE, it might be a valid option for some organizations to restrict access to this area based on role membership.
- Community: this section of a COE is used to foster a Power Platform community. Often, Yammer provides employees with a platform to chat and exchange thoughts. Also, my recommendation is to use gamification to increase the awareness of this section and make employees drop by often, as a community is kept alive by participation only. Gamification options may include badges awarded to members identified as community champions or who have provided the most helpful answers. Although this is a community area rather than the official corporate IT help desk, IT helpdesk members should also participate. Whenever a question can be answered quickly, they are encouraged to do so, reducing the number of service tickets. Also, a separate channel run by the corporate Helpdesk ensures that solutions to identified issues can be shared with a broader audience.
What else can be hosted in a COE?
For most organizations, a COE focusing on knowledge management and building a community (as described above) might be sufficient, but there is more that organizations can add to a COE. For example, another big topic is usage monitoring. Once rolled out, organizations need to monitor how the Power Platform is used. This monitoring can be achieved by adding a section to a corporate COE that provides access to customized reports. Those reports are best created in PowerBI, and provide insight on the number of environments, published apps or how many licenses have been given to employees. In addition, management and stakeholders need those reports to measure user adoption based on predefined success factors. Also, corporate committees and change management teams can take advantage of those reports for their work.
Although considered beneficial, usage reports should be implemented as a second interaction of a COE. When planning the implementation of a COE, this focus should first be set to providing support for users as that has the most impact on user adoption. Then, once the knowledge portion and the community have been established, a second iteration can focus on reports and the automation of related processes (such as license management).
Another topic to consider is a list of key users (or knowledge holders). Although this might not be beneficial for small organizations, the increasing anonymity of large organizations sometimes makes it challenging to identify knowledge holders for a specific topic. Therefore, a list of those experts and their areas of expertise is beneficial in large organizations.
A well-implemented COE pays dividends
Power Platform is used by a vast audience — ranging from inexperienced users to very skilled developers. Because of this, there needs to be much more support than just training, videos and a corporate helpdesk. Rolling out Power Platform to the entire staff involves significant investments in efficiency and modernization. That requires broad user adoption and extensive usage to justify investment costs. Both can only be achieved if all involved users enjoy tailored support. Based on my long-time experience, a Center of Excellence is one of the best options organizations have to foster user adoption and safeguard their significant investment. Creating and maintaining a COE requires effort and often the involvement of external and internal experts. But once a COE is established, organizations soon realize those efforts pay off.
Microsoft Power Platform Center of Excellence (COE) Starter Kit: Microsoft offers a free starter kit for Power Platform COEs. However, this is just a starter kit and requires a significant amount of work and customization to be tailored to the needs of an organization. Also, it uses a different approach compared to what I described here. NTT DATA's established practice regarding a corporate Center of Excellence (which I described in this article) focuses on tailored support, increased efficiency and providing knowledge to different groups.
Post Date: 2/15/2022