Read This If: You want to ensure you are basing your projects value on input from true subject matter expert (for any type of project).
A fake subject matter expert or SME can derail a project. Improvements to your business should be based on the best information you have access to, not outdated or incorrect information. The acronym “SME” seems to pop-up everywhere. I agree that saying “subject matter expert” does not flow as well as SME, but the phrase drives home that the person should be an expert (and in the right subject)!
Subject matter experts are used on projects from IT Strategy, to business process improvement, to software development, to organizational change . . . to name a few. They are supposed to impart the wisdom of what is actually happening, and often, what is needed. But if they are NOT an expert, then what? Are you basing the success of your project on poor information?
So what exactly is a fake SME? The basic premise is that they are someone who appears or pretends to be a subject matter expert, but is not. There are many types, but let me outline some of the more common ones:
1. The person works with the subject matter, but is not really an expert. This may be a junior person, someone new, or someone who probably should not even be working the area. If this person was quick to jump at the opportunity or was the only person who was available, this is not a bad thing, but be cautious. Is this person available because they don’t really know the subject matter, and the true experts are busy getting things done? Find out how long all SMEs have worked in the area they are an expert on and who the junior and senior people are. If you determine you are not working with an expert, perhaps the person can help coordinate with the expert and can save some of the expert’s time (and learn more in the process)?
2. The person thinks they know the subject matter but have never actually done the work. Typically, these folks are in senior management. They could be a director, VP, or C-level personnel. They may also be your sponsor or product owner. I often find this type of fake SME the toughest to work with, for obvious reasons! A key to dealing with this type of fake SME is to understand two key points: (a) they may know about some of the key problems in the business, but they do not typically know ALL the details of those problems and (b) they may have some insight into how they WANT the business to run.
This second point leads to a foundational question related to a SME. You know you want an expert, but WHICH subject matter do you want an expert on? Do you need an expert on the current or future process, system, or organizational structure? Perhaps you need BOTH? To avoid problems here, a simple way to deal with this is to find two SMEs, one a “current SME” and one a “future SME.” You also have to deal with the issue of “the value of understanding the current environment”, which is often overlooked, but that is another blog on another day (or night!).
3. The person was a SME, but has not actively worked with the subject matter in quite some time. This type of fake SME can be dangerous. They THINK they are a subject matter expert, but really don’t know what is actually happening. A quick way to determine if they are an expert is to ask (in an appropriate way) when they have most recently worked in the area you are discussing. Managing people doing the work is NOT the same. If they are not an “end user” they likely do not know how things are happening NOW. Just knowing how things used to happen does not help you if you are trying to understand a CURRENT business process, system, or organization. Some of the same tips for the “#2″ person above would apply here.
So how do you prevent a fake SME from derailing your project?
Aside from the ideas above, I have found an effective method for dealing with the fake SME is to prevent having any assigned to the project in the first place. During the early stages of a project, when discussing SMEs, talk about “end users” and the current and future states of the subject matter. You can adjust the statement of work or a project definition, whatever works for you. The key is that the earlier you discuss this with the project sponsor or product owner (who, as noted may be a fake SME!), the more of a chance you have to mitigate the risks.
If the project is underway, and you did not have the opportunity to address it early on, try asking the fake SME a lot of questions. Asking a lot of questions will often cause them to recommend that you gather more information from other “experts”, which ideally gives you the chance to find a real expert.
The age old question comes up again, “who else should I talk to?”
Feel free to email me with questions, comments, or ideas for future blogs!
P.S. Thanks for the excellent comments and questions on last weeks blog about online networking and Linked In. Keep the comments and questions coming and feel free to chime in right in the blog! There were a lot of valuable comments, and I believe having them here would be valuable for others to see as well.