tech comm – elearning – information experience

Hey, you looking at SME?

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Subject Matter Expert (SME). What does that mean?

That special someone, somewhere, who has perfect knowledge of a feature, a product, a technology. Sitting in a Mastermind chair (explainer article by @rhodri), which they can spin around, Blofeld-like when called upon by lesser mortals to offer an opinion on the .. er.. subject matter. It is so singular, so individualistic, so me, not we.

Check out iSixSigma site’s definition:

The Subject Matter Expert is that individual who exhibits the highest level of expertise in performing a specialized job, task, or skill within the organization.

Rest your shoulders a while there Atlas, that sounds like a heavy load.

Does the SME have a place in this collaborative, agile, social, user- and customer-centric world in which we develop software and content today?

Image of book with spotlight lamp

We, not me

I’m not devaluing expert knowledge or expertise. I don’t doubt that in your product development cycle – agile or otherwise – there is someone with expertise on how a feature was built, on how it should perform under certain conditions, and how, when you put all these things together, you end up with a more nebulous term: domain knowledge. In fact that’s part of the problem. Neither of the terms SME or “domain expert” does justice to what it means to be an expert in a field. I have had the privilege over the years to work with some of the brightest and best engineers and designers who bring years of experience, research and innovation to bear on amazing technical leaps forward.

I sympathise if they have been in meetings which are anything like the one in Lauris Beinerts’s comedy sketch, The Expert (7 mins, 12 million+ views). In the video, everything is dumped on “the expert”. While there are four other people in the meeting, not one of them offers any leadership or expertise from their own areas.

To bring a product, feature, and technical content to the market is a team effort. It takes experts in many fields: design, testing, user research, product management, customer support, content development, publishing, marketing, and more. A village to raise a child and all that…

Agile and cross-functional teams

Agile development has both empowered and diluted expertise. Empowered in that it gives all members of the team a say, a voice in making a great product. Yes, testers can help design; yes, engineers can lead user research, yes, tech writers have a voice in UX. Yikes, but this feature is all about specialist area “xyz”!

We still need a SME. And… we also need the PM who was last involved, the marketing team who put that great video together, and the customers who joined the beta programme. That’s not dilution, that’s building a stronger team to deliver a “product” in a broader sense of the word.

In September this year, I took part in 2 days of the UX Cambridge event. Lots of great talks. One, entitled “You don’t need a UX Designer” was given by Jonathon Roberts (@touchdeluxe), UX Designer at Red Gate. He talked about the challenges of being a specialist, about preventing bottlenecks, and about coaching engineers to take active roles in user research. By the end of the presentation he hadn’t talked himself out a job. He remains the UX expert, however he’d shared some great insights into empowering teams to share and rotate areas of responsibility so that the whole team could move forward at a greater velocity and with more empathy for both customer and co-worker. This kind of coaching takes time and some team members will be more willing to be “empowered” than others. UX isn’t the only niche area. We are all experts in our fields.

I can’t write that without thinking of the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Brian: You’ve got to think for yourselves! You’re all individuals!

The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!

Brian: You’re all different!

The Crowd: Yes, we are all different!

It takes time to change, and it’s not always comfortable at the start.

Embrace your inner SME

Yes, the SME does have a place in this collaborative, agile, social, user- and customer-centric world in which we develop software and content in today, in a more-coach-less-Blofeld kind of way.

So, go ahead:

  • Embrace your inner SME. You are the expert in content creation, information development, translation, whatever that thing is that you do best. You are not supporting other experts, you are the expert.
  • Share your expertise with those willing to join your band. Start with those who have shown a glimmer of interest or enthusiasm for that thing that you do, and build momentum.
  • Identify multiple SMEs. Find the experts in all the areas which are impacted by what you are working on. This one is especially for technical communicators. You sit at the intersection of so much expertise. Develop a balance of input from multiple sources, not just from the “loudest” ones.

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