The Subject Matter Expert Recipe

I was asked to compile a 'recipe' for an organization design Subject Matter Expert (SME) the other day. Here it is for you to try out.

The Vision
What is an SME? It's all too easy to assume a nebulous vision of a guru swanning around giving ad hoc but sage advice to hard-working organization design project team members and then seeing them act on it.

But a workable vision for SME value-add to a project is much harder edged than this. Envision an effective SME. He/she has in-depth, specialist or expert knowledge of a business area, work process, or system functionality. With this goes the ability to transmit and share his/her knowledge to the organization design project team in a way that helps them successfully meet, or even exceed, their goals and objectives.
So, for example, a measurement SME will be able to help the Measurement work team choose specifically, what to measure, why to measure it, and how to measure it.

The Challenge
There are several challenges to the SME role:
a) The SME brief is not clear so he/she doesn't know what the expectations are in terms of contribution and delivery.
b) The project team does not recognize the need for SME support in the tranches (or for a cross-cutting SME for example for change management).
c) The program lead does not have the skills or resources to select SMEs.
d) The team members do not know how or when to ask for SME support and assistance.
e) There is an inadequate match between what the team needs and what the team wants from the SME – are they looking for a trainer, peer-reviewer, approver, knowledge sharer or something else.
f) There is no point of contact for the SME to report or refer to for guidance and updates.
g) SMEs are not perceived as a 'real' contributor and are left off communications and out of meetings that could be relevant.
h) The SME has other organizational roles that take precedence over this one.

The Process
Making the SME role successful for the project requires, as a first step the development of a clear brief for the role. This should include information under the following headings – example text is given:

What we are looking for in an SME We are seeking someone who can bring technical expertise to our Policy workstream. Ideally you will have worked with telework policies and be well versed in the how organizations develop and implement these.

You will have built a reputation as a 'go-to' person in this expertise, and be able to give advice and direction on how we can extend and develop telework in the organization. We also expect you to have the skills and confidence to both recommend and push for policy changes if it becomes evident that these are needed.

Additionally we are looking for someone who is comfortable with sometimes chaotic, emerging situations, who can be proactive and is quick at 'connecting the dots'.

What you can expect from us: A challenging project that provides growth and learning for you as we take teleworking to new heights. Great people to work with.

What we expect from you: 25% of your time for the duration of the project. Proactive involvement, suggestions, advice, recommendations as the project progresses. New ways of thinking and new perspectives on your domain of expertise as it applies to teleworking. Best practices from other organizations. Full participation as a team member. Contributions to our knowledge bank (white papers, articles, other resources).

Activities: Participation in weekly team meetings. Regular contributions to the project collaboration space
Development of team member skills and expertise (e.g. through running lunch n learn sessions).

Deliverables: Case study and white paper for external circulation

The second step is selection of the right person or people. An article by Jose Fajardo lists some SME selection criteria (adapted below) for selection of an internal SME.

Domain expertise: Does the person have deep expertise in the specific domain e.g. performance management, customer service, telework policy?

Business process expertise: Does the person know how the organizational processes work e.g. how to get resources, the capabilities of an IT system?

Methodology expertise: Does the person have expertise in relevant methodologies e.g. consulting, facilitation, coaching, project management?

Recognized competence: Is the person credible and is he/she a good contributor?

Independence: Has the person a track record in thinking 'whole organization' and not 'my piece of it'.

Availability Is the person willing and able to be available (and has this been cleared if necessary with his/her manager?)

Authority Does the person have the authority and skills to make decisions, give advice, and recommend courses of action?

The third step is to make sure the project team is calling on, and using the SME's skills. Not to be forgotten is the appropriate regular feedback, reward and recognition of SME work during the project duration. Below is an example of non-monetary reward – often the only type available – sent to the whole team, including SMEs, after a public event.


You absolutely rocked the house! Your knowledge, presentation and command of difficult subject matter that others are just barely scratching the surface on was clear! … ALL of you performed magnificently! …. Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! Your stars really shone brightly and you definitely represented our organization in the most excellent fashion! KUDOS Team!

The players
The SME is interacting with a range of players including
• The program manager
• Work team members
• Other stakeholders (e.g. the SMEs line manager)
• Other SMEs
• Organizational employees
• Customers
• External organizations

Golden rules for SME interactions with the players:

1. Focus on being credible. Provide good, useful, and usable information about the area of expertise tailored and appropriate for each of the players.
2. Be original in your approach to your expertise and its application to the different players
3. Provide authoritative guidance in a way that doesn't come across as demanding or controlling

The Outcome
Following the recipe above will result in expertise being put to good use. It will add value to the project deliverables and demonstrate a good return on investment in the SME role.

The Next Steps
Think through the expertise you need for your project.
Follow the recipe – making any suitable adaptations.
Enjoy working with your SMEs.