There is an old saying that “Work flows to those who do it,” and it often seems that individuals branded as subject matter experts end up at the receiving end of this aphorism. And yet, while having to deal with additional work is definitely a burden, SMEs rarely reject the additional work outright. They may complain, but they still get the additional work done. There seems to be a rather complex psychology at work within most SMEs. They become SME’s because they genuinely make an effort to master some area of knowledge or practice, and they recognize that they are valued to the extent others find this useful and come to them for help. This generates respect for SMEs, as well as some degree of power, job security and sometimes fear. Despite the complaints from SMEs, they seem to enjoy these psychological rewards and are content to play their role for years, perhaps decades.
However, it is worth exploring whether this low maturity arrangement is efficient and effective when it comes to data management, and IT in general. While there is a good deal of literature about expertise management, there is not much about the ways in which business analysts and data analysts interact with SMEs. Also, being an SME is a personal matter, based upon an individual’s choices in widely divergent business settings. Being an SME is not a role. For instance, there is no professional organization of SMEs in the way that DAMA exists for data professionals or IIBA exists for business analysts. Thus, SMEs do not organize in any way, even within an enterprise, and they have no collective voice. Perhaps because of this there has never been an industry-wide effort to figure out the rules of the road for how BAs and DAs engage with SMEs. Yet such an effort is worth considering because it could reduce the burden on SMEs and make the enterprise less dependent on particular individuals.
The Bill of Rights
How should an SME be treated? Here is a set of guidelines.
1. An SME must receive as much advance notice as possible of their participation in a task.
All too often, SMEs are called on an urgent basis to deal with some question or issue. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but often it is not. It may be known that an SME's time will be needed, but no effort is made to forewarn the SME until there is no time left. As a result the SME will find that their real work - their "day job" - is disrupted.
2. An SME is entitled to a specific, written description of the task assigned to them.
Since SMEs are not organized in any collective way, they cannot impose any standards of engagement on BAs and DAs. As a result, SMEs are asked for their help in quite informal ways, such as an email or phone call. This reverses the roles involved: The SME has to figure out what the BA or DA wants - what their requirements are. When an SME is not given a specific, written description of what is needed, he or she will likely provide information that is not a fit, or not all that is needed. The result will be more iterations of engagement with the SME, all of which is inefficient and risky.
3. All requests for an SME’s services must be approved by the SME’s manager.
If an SME's position is directly related to their area of expertise, they can stay in that position for much longer than their managers. This can mean that managers do not understand that the SME has to provide support outside of his or her assigned duties, e.g., to BAs who have urgent questions. The result can be that SMEs find it more difficult and time-consuming to justify to their manager why they should help a BA with a request, than just providing the help. Once again, the fact that SME is not a recognized role or function creates a problem. Managers will find it difficult to accept that an SME has to engage in tasks that are not directly assigned by the manager. This must also be stressful for the SME.
The only way to deal with this is to ensure that the SME's manager is aware of the requests that go to the SME and approves them. For their part, the manager must recognize that an SME has to devote a certain amount of time to providing assistance based on their expertise. If the manager accepts this, then BAs and others who ask for SME assistance must accept that the manager can prioritize requests for the SME's time. That said, this obviously remains a very difficult area.
4. SMEs must receive formal recognition for the work they do as an SME.
There is usually no doubt that an SME receives informal recognition, as evidenced by the BAs and others who seek them out for help. Again, however, since being an SME is not a formal designation, SMEs are unlikely to directly receive formal recognition for their efforts. This is clearly unfair, and management should ensure that SME activities are put into personal goals. Since we are supposed to work in a "knowledge economy," such formal recognition makes sense. Also, it might reduce the chances of an SME "going bad" - becoming so disillusioned with the extra work they have to do as an SME that they stop providing support.
5. All knowledge obtained from an SME must be documented by the analyst involved and made available for general consumption in the future.
This is one of my particular bugbears. Very often SMEs are asked the same question over and over again. The phenomenon of periodic reanalysis of the same subject matter is prevalent in data management and IT. This points to incredibly immature knowledge management practices in most enterprises. Part of the problem is the fixation of working in projects. Knowledge is obtained from an SME only for use in a current project and is not curated with any intent for future reuse of any kind. Documentation is always just "good enough" for the current project team in its current state at the current time. Passage of time or change in state of the project team requires the analyst to revisit the SME to ask the same questions again. This is an unjustfiable waste of resources. Additionally, it makes the SME indispensible to the enterprise, which is a huge risk. I personally know some SMEs who have been laid off from their jobs, only to be rehired because the knowledge they possessed only existed in their heads and nowhere else.
The five basic points listed above provide a framework for thinking about how SMEs should be treated in an enterprise. They not only point out practices to treat SMEs fairly, but also how the enterprise can reduce inefficiency and risk around its cadre of SMEs.