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SME – the Subject Matter Expert

In technology-centric product development organizations, promoting and retaining talent while fostering a culture of technical excellence is essential. An established role of Subject Metter Experts, or SMEs, has proven to be an effective way to facilitate knowledge excellence, particularly in multi-project organizations.

Steve Jobs once noted, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” However, just hiring often outrageously expensive experts and then just hoping for the best is usually not enough. A certain level of organization and hierarchy, stemming from knowledge and experience rather than from formal authority, is crucial if your organization is to outperform the competition in fast-paced technology environments. Expertise and diversity are both required as this could result in a risk of a communication failure.  If two “stars” are hired to lead similar tasks, they are likely to have different approaches on several levels. The resulting friction may have severe consequences for the team or even the entire organization. For example, if an expert is convinced that using the concept of use cases for requirements engineering is the best approach, while the other expert prefers using agile user stories, without clear leadership, such discussions may end up in endless disputes.

Thus, technical leadership should not be left to chance. In his well-known book Knowledge Management Systems, Ronald Maier emphasizes the importance of “process owners”. However, since the term process owner may sound suspicious, especially in the context of an agile environment, I prefer the term “Subject Matter Expert”, also mentioned by Ronald Maier. Subject Matter Expert, or SME, bears a promise of meaningfulness and conceptual elegance.

In technology-driven organizations, key concepts such as “project management”, “configuration management” or “test management” are already well established across many industries. In such organizations, for instance, “software requirements engineering” can be performed various numerous approaches, methods and tools. In order to ensure consistent methodology and to implement an effective quality assurance policy, a “Requirements SME” may be established to align all those aspects for the current project as well as across projects and departments. Further examples of an SME may include:

  • Configuration Management SME
  • Project Management SME
  • Software Engineering SME
  • System Architecture SME
  • System Test and Validation SME
  • Software Test and Validation SME
  • Quality Assurance SME

The Quality Assurance SME may (and should) correlate with the concept of the TCC, the Team Capability Coach described in the previous article.

SME responsibilities

The responsibilities of an SME include:

  • Defining process concepts and definitions (this correlates with Ronald Maier’s “process owner”) roles, including process descriptions, work instructions, templates, checklists, and other process assets
  • Defining appropriate methodologies, such as tools, notations, modeling practices, etc.
  • Participation in technical and management reviews
  • Peer-reviewing the work products in the scope of the SME’s competency
  • Providing training, training materials, and hands-on support in the respective subject matter
  • Reviewing and approving new hires in his or her scope
  • Peer-reviewing other SMEs’ process documents.

An SME should be willing to continuously learn new aspects of the subject matter, including participating in cross-industry work groups, meetings, trainings and, in accordance with the company’s policy, participating in appropriate (social) media activities, informing the teams about subject-matter innovative ideas and specific news, such as whitepapers and related literature.

SME skills

An effective SME exhibits a number of skills and qualities, such as:

  • An extensive experience in the corresponding technical role
  • Extensive experience in the related industry
  • Appropriate educational background (typically of academic kind)
  • Strong preference for structured and systematic approaches
  • Acceptance and authority among the peers
  • Deep awareness of process quality aspects — particularly in your specific industry — which includes good knowledge of the respective standards (such as Automotive SPICE, ISO 26262, etc.)
  • Good command of standard management techniques and methods
  • Passion for your subject matter and willingness to help your peers in the same subject matter area
  • High emotional intelligence

The essence of an SME consists of not only factual process know-how, but also an ability to convey a vision of the respective skill. In some organizational cultures, the term “evangelist” is used that is related to the SME role. At any rate, an SME must be able to emanate positive authority, technical excellence, passion for the SME’s subject, and ability to continuously learn in order to stay ahead of the industry.

As opposed to the “soft skills”, the “hard skills” can be categorized and systematically estimated. My favorite approach to skill management is described by Hubert L. und Stuart E. Dreyfus in the book “Mind over Machine”. It defines three expertise levels:

  1. Novice (only follows context-free rules)
  2. Advanced Beginner (uses new situational elements. Decisions are still solely based on rules)
  3. Competent (the number of rules has grown large, available information is prioritized, self-organizing)
  4. Proficient (first intuitive decisions, holistic thinking begins, verifies own intuitive decisions using rational patterns)
  5. Expert (holistic thinking, including decision making and planning)

Obviously, an SME, regardless of the discipline, should be on the level 5 on Dreyfus’ scale.

An effective SME

The combination of technical and personal skills is as uncommon as it is important. Even the best technical skills and knowledge may prevent an SME from being effective if the SME cannot demonstrate a high level of emotional intelligence. Such a delicate balance of skill and emotional intelligence is fragile. The risk of alienating the peers that the SME is supposed to lead should be taken very seriously. I firmly believe that for an SME, a high amount of humbleness is often very helpful. Other experts will not follow the SME if they feel oppress or manipulated. An SME leadership is best demonstrated by knowledge, experience, and willingness to listen.

It is also important to emphasize that, in order to be effective in the SME role, an SME must have the authority to make substantial decisions in the scope of the subject matter, in agreement with other SMEs. That includes tools, methods, development approaches and methodologies.

At the same time, an SME must never appear dangerous to the senior management, otherwise an SME may become ineffective and even redundant. Consequently, an SME must be directly, explicitly empowered by the top management and become a respectable role, forming a strong connection between their project team(s) and the rest of the organization.

Furthermore, in order to stay in touch with the subject matter reality, the SME must not be excluded from first-hand, continuous project experience. It is recommended for an SME to continue work that corresponds with the SME role. An average of 20% of the SME’s working time in project assignments is recommended.

An SME organization

As previously mentioned, an SME should not share the subject matter responsibility equally with another SME in the same field in order to ensure effective decision making. This raises the question of the availability of an SME. As the organization grows, at some point it becomes impossible for a single person to provide advice, training, coaching, and other services to multiple teams. Thus, defining the role of a lead SME becomes unavoidable: one person is chosen to be the “super SME”, while other SME in the same subject matter area follow the lead SME. Furthermore, in large organizations, there may be several levels on an SME expertise, organized hierarchically similar to the martial art of Judo, such as “Green Belt” (competent), “Blue Belt” (proficient), and “Black Belt” (top expert, for the lead SME), in analogy to Dreyfus’ expert levels 3 to 5.

The following (incomplete and hypothetical) example illustrates a hierarchical SME organization:

Partial example of an SME organization

Difference between “process expert” and “subject matter expert”

There is a common misconception that every process needs a dedicated owner. In standards such as CMMI or Automotive SPICE, the concept of a “process” has been misused by making the assumption that a “process” is an independent, self-contained task.

The transition from CMMI to Automotive SPICE unfortunately amplified the problem with a “process” as a separate entity. In CMMI, the process disciplines were called “process area” while in Automotive SPICE, those process areas are now instead called simply “processes”, which suggests that development processes are part of the sequential series of concluded activities. While this is true in certain cases, such as a kicking-off a project is followed by the delivery of a system, it is not useful to have a cascading chain of events in all cases. Instead, certain activities, such as “software requirements development” or “software integration testing”, naturally concentrate around experts who rarely are identical with the Automotive SPICE processes or process areas in CMMI. For example, in CMMI, having a “process owner” for the risk management process area “RSKM” is rarely useful as a separate “process”. Similar applies to the Automotive SPICE “MAN.5” (“Risk Management”).

Having separate “process owners” for each process or process area typically results in redundant project organizations who frequently argue over the responsibilities.

The following example demonstrates a possible SME and Automotive SPICE coherence (mostly limited to the VDE scope):

SME Automotive SPICE process
Requirements SME SYS.1 “Requirements Elicitation
SYS.2 “System Requirements Analysis” SWE.1 “Software Requirements Analysis”
Architect SME

SYS.3 “System Architectural Design”

SWE.2 “Software Architectural Design”

Software Development SME SWE.3 “Software Detailed Design and Unit Construction”
System Validation SME

SYS.5 “System Qualification Test”

SYS.4 “System Integration and Integration Test”

Software Validation SME

SWE.6 “Software Qualification Test”

SWE.5 “Software Integration and Integration Test”

SWE.4 “Software Unit Verification”

Project Management SME

MAN.3 “Project Management”

MAN.5 “Risk Management”

ACQ.4 “Supplier Monitoring”

SPL.2 “Product Release”

Quality Assurance SME SUP.1 “Quality Assurance”
Configuration Management SME SUP.8 “Configuration Management”
Issue Management SME

SUP.9 “Problem Resolution Management”

SUP.10 “Change Request Management”

This chart is just an example, and other SME responsibilities are possible (e.g. it may make sense to include the responsibility for “SUP.9 Problem Resolution” in the “Project Management SME”). Other roles may have to be split. For example, a software architecture SME may require very different approach from a system architecture SME. Structuring the SME team may look very different for different organizations and specific industries.

Also, since Automotive SPICE or CMMI are only concerned with certain organizational aspects, further SMEs are usually required to support the expertise with other tasks such as sales, production/manufacturing, supply, marketing, etc.

Advantages of a SME organization

An SME-driven organization has a number of advantages:

  • Technical experts do not have to be forced to become traditional managers. Instead, SMEs can remain in their favorite expertise areas.
  • Consequently, an SME career helps retain talent, reducing churn and retaining the expert knowledge within a technical organization.
  • Since SMEs tend to be more experienced and dedicated, SMEs are more likely to be immune to technical and management hypes.
  • Fostering the project-oriented culture instead of exposing project teams to strong matrix organizations which is, by its very nature, averse to change, helps achieving tangible project goals.

Strong SME organizations are correlated with the principle of a “T-Rex Company” which are particularly effective in fast-paced, high-tech organizations. An SME organization may be a welcome alternative to a strong middle-management concept that is traditionally at the opposite spectrum of a T-Rex Company. Consequently, strong matrix organizations will unlikely benefit from an established SME organization. In fact, establishing SMEs within a strong matrix organization is likely to be wasteful and confusing. For example, a well-oiled government organization does not need projects nor SMEs. The emphasis on traditional industries such as food industry, tobacco, healthcare, etc., will rarely benefit from the SME concept.

The single decisive aspect that helps determine whether an SME organization is helpful is the pace of organizational change. Organizations dealing with constant change will need SMEs to coordinate ever-changing compliance standards and quality-assurance methodologies. Industries such as software, automotive, life sciences, aviation, personal transportation, to name a few, are likely to benefit from SME organizations. Moving to a projectized organization forms and the SME concept are consistent with the global economic dynamics, and companies that understand the role of proper expert knowledge management will dominate in the coming decades.

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About the Author

Roman MildnerRoman Mildner is a Project Manager Professional (PMP), executive management consultant at United Mentors, and a book author . He has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and as a manager consultant since 1998. He focuses on process improvement services with an emphasis on Automotive SPICE and strategy consulting. For more details, please visit his United Mentors home page.

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