So, you’ve decided to tackle a key process improvement project. You have your problem statement and scope set up, and now you need to determine who will be assigned to the core project team. Who needs to be on the team to maximize your probability of success? There’s a term for those individuals: subject matter experts.

An overview: What are subject matter experts (SMEs)?

A subject matter expert, or SME, is the person who possesses a deep understanding of a particular subject. The subject in question can be anything, such as a job, department, function, process, piece of equipment, software solution, material, historical information, and more. Subject matter experts may have collected their knowledge through intensive levels of schooling, or through years of professional experience with the subject. The SME has a level of understanding regarding their subject that is not common knowledge, making the person quite valuable to an organization.

Subject matter experts are especially important in process improvement efforts. They often have a great deal of process knowledge that’s not documented. They also can save you time by identifying inadequate solutions proposed by other members of the team during the solution selection stage of the project.

SMEs can also make ideal trainers. Thanks to their intimate understanding of the subject, they can explain and demonstrate the process in ways that can minimize the training curve for those without the years of experience. In-depth levels of practical training help cut down on the number of mistakes new hires make during the onboarding process, flattening the learning curve. 

Subject matter experts are also found outside of an organization — they may operate more like consultants. For example, many subject matter experts make a living making court appearances and testifying on subjects that can make a substantial difference to a verdict. 

3 best practices when working with SMEs

1. If your SME is internal to your organization, be sure to value their experience, especially if they’re the only person who possesses key pieces of information. Many SME possess tribal knowledge, knowledge that is undocumented and passed down verbally or in practice. If a key SME leaves the organization through layoff, accident, or new job opportunity, it could potentially affect the organization’s ability to perform. 

2. Always be developing your talent, turning key individuals into SMEs over time. Support their efforts to continue educating themselves, to try out new ideas, and to share their insights with other team members.

3. There will always be times when you need a SME who is external to your organization. Try to build a network of these different types of SMEs so you can minimize the time it takes to contact and contract one when the time arises.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about SMEs

We are holding a process improvement Kaizen Event, but management is refusing to allow a key SME to participate. Should we cancel the event?

This is a very difficult situation. There are many events where without the SME knowledge, the process improvement team will yield poor results. As the team tries to define the current state, they will find themselves with holes in the process that no one understands, or worse, document a part of the process that simply does not accurately represent what actually happens. 

If the SME cannot be a participant full-time for the event, find out if you can at least carve out a couple of hours for them to verify the team’s results and look at the possible solutions the team generates. If absolutely no time with the SME can be secured, it might be best to reschedule the event until a time when the SME is available.

As an external subject matter expert, what is my role?

Your primary job is to provide knowledge you already possess, but you can speed up the communication if you have a better understanding of your client’s situation — and how your knowledge fits into their situation. 

Be sure to communicate with your client to acquire a solid understanding of their situation so you can present your information in a beneficial manner and advise them on how to act upon it.

My subject matter expert is out for the day, and no one else understands the process well enough to take over and perform it properly. What do I do?

At this point, there’s little you can do. When personnel that possess key pieces of information are absent, it often brings an entire process to a standstill. Sometimes you may be able to acquire another person from outside the department or organization, but finding that person who can simply step in for the original SME is rarely practical or effective. 

The good news is there are steps you can take to help minimize the risks the next time your SME is unavailable. Whenever possible, document any tribal knowledge and store it in a place that’s accessible when the SME is not available or unexpectedly absent from work. In addition, cross-train your personnel whenever possible so you don’t have a situation with a single point of failure.

Subject matter experts are important when addressing challenges

The many years of knowledge that a subject matter expert has built makes them invaluable resources within their community. These individuals can use their deep understanding of a subject to assist with challenging situations, such as understanding key failures regarding subject or process improvement efforts. Make efforts to recognize the value of any subject matter experts in your organization.

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