Maximizing the Effectiveness of a Subject Matter Expert

Subject matter expertise is essential on software projects. But a subject matter expert's role and expected contributions are often nebulous concepts. Even the process of selecting a subject matter expert is often misunderstood. This article provides a subject matter expert definition and offers a few guidelines and pointers to help QA managers maximize the benefits of working with a SME.

Subject Matter Experts have special, in-depth knowledge of a business area that enhances a team's understanding of a given legacy process. Each SME plays a critical role in defining business needs, test requirements, and software functionality. An SME is a stakeholder for a business team that has recognized expertise and authority for a given business process.

An SME can act as trainer, peer-reviewer, approver, or knowledge sharer. She can even help design the architecture of a system. The SME's role can be easily obfuscated, muddled, or diminished if the project does not take appropriate steps to ensure that the SME understands her responsibilities. Below are a few guidelines to help projects maximize the effectiveness and productivity of an SME.

Specify Role and Expectations
Many companies hold meetings with SMEs who are unprepared for the questions they are asked. The SME is often left to wonder why she was invited to a meeting where she is unable to contribute or provide responses. The project that is sponsoring the SME bears not only the cost of bringing the SME from a remote business location but also the cost of bringing an unprepared SME.

To alleviate this problem, it is imperative that the project sponsor specify and articulate its expectations and objectives for the SME, as well as define the SME's role and what she will need to contribute and deliver. The SME should have documented instructions that explicitly detail the meeting's agenda, what she is expected to contribute, and how her expertise is of value to the sponsoring unit. Examples of tasks or deliverables for an SME are hereby presented:

  • Review test cases for integration testing associated with the inventory management system.
  • Help validate user requirements for payroll application.
  • Conduct code walkthrough for accounts payable interface to legacy system.
  • Review requirements traceability matrix, and ensure that requirements have coverage.
  • Help refine and determine feasibility, correctness, and completeness of end-user's requirement.
  • Provide input for the design and construction of test cases and business scenarios.
  • Help answer questions associated with the design of the status quo application, its features, and its capabilities.
  • Validate executed test results.

The main objectives are that the SME have well-defined tasks, deliverables, and due dates. In order to maximize her productivity, before arriving to an event, the SME should have had the opportunity to ask questions about her role to ensure that she understands it clearly.

Administrative Support
Often, the SME is not a member of the project or team that is implementing a software system. Consequently, she does not have access to critical project information and knowledge such as test cases templates, shared drives, repositories, databases, and test and requirements management tools. SMEs without access to this project-specific information are at a disadvantage and may be unable to provide significant contributions to the project. The QA manager should create an on-board binder for new SMEs to help them become familiar with the project's objectives, goals, QA standards, test procedures, and location of the testing information.

Standardize Meetings
If the SME is expected to attend meetings, the meetings should be standardized and adhere to a specified and defined process. If each business process team is executing a meeting without any defined process, this is likely to create confusion for the SME.

In order to properly utilize her skills and expertise, it is important that the meeting facilitator understands the role of the SME. Because the SME is frequently part of the audience during the analysis and requirements gathering phases, she will need to know what contributions she will make to the meeting, and the facilitator will need to understand

User Comments

1 comment
Naomi Karten's picture
Naomi Karten

Interesting! This sounds like an approach that can save a lot of wear and tear on everyone. Of course, sometimes a team member may identify a legitimate problem that the rest of the team doesn’t notice or understand, so the way that team member explains it to the others – and the tone of voice he/she uses in explaining it -- may have a bearing on whether the team accepts it as a problem. ~Naomi

March 5, 2013 - 6:46pm

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