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 how to best provide the means for the SME to be effective. The QA manager should provide the guidelines and criteria for conducting consistent, homogenous meetings.

Peer Review Procedures
Many companies use an SME to help refine test requirements and test cases. But does the SME understand what forms will be used for providing peer reviews? And more importantly, how does the project know that the SME has reviewed all the necessary material and been given a chance to report her feedback?

The QA manager should elicit feedback from the SME and establish recurring meetings that ensure that all of the SME's questions, concerns, and issues have been answered. Furthermore, before the departure of the SME, the QA manager should determine whether the SME met and fulfilled all her roles, objectives, and expectations. For instance, if the SME was only able to review 70% of all testable requirements, the QA manager may want to postpone the SME's departure until she has had a chance to peer review all of the testable requirements.

Document Lessons Learned
To foster an environment of continuous process improvements, the QA manager should strive to document all issues, suggestions, and problems that the SME reports.

An SME may find that there were problems with workshops or with the preparation of materials. She may discover that her business area was not properly represented or that she did not have proper training on a test management tool that she needed to review requirements. No matter how trivial the suggestion or reported issue seems, the QA manager should identify and document the problem and take corrective action. The objective is to eliminate the problem or implement the suggestion and ensure that the SME's input is not ignored.

Establish a POC
The QA manager can assign a point of contact for the SME. The POC can help the SME with administrative tasks such as making travel reservations, or give her directions to local establishments. This person will also serve as the liaison between the SME's managers and the local project, providing feedback and helping the SME prioritize her workload and assignments at the project. The POC is especially helpful in aiding the SME's transition for long-term, out-of-town assignments.

SME Selection Criteria
Selecting a suitable SME and evaluating the attributes of an SME are activities that are often sidestepped or ignored. Because a project may have to bring in more than one SME from a given area, the selection process can be time-consuming and warrants much cogitation. Potential criteria factors for evaluating an SME are hereby presented:

  • Domain Expertise
    Does the SME understand the company's supply chain systems and how this application interacts with applications from vendors and suppliers? Does she have knowledge about the roles and duties associated with running the company's supply chain systems or about the architecture of the supply chain system?
  • Business Process Expertise
    Does the SME have knowledge of the existing legacy systems for payroll, and if so, can she provide test data from the existing payroll application? Does the SME know how the company currently replenishes inventory levels? Is she familiar with the levels of approvals and notifications necessary for replenishing inventory?
  • Methodology Expertise
    If the project is adhering to a methodology that is predicated on RUP or CMM, does the SME understand this methodology? Does she understand the procedures for documenting peer reviews or in which automated test tools the requirements and test cases are stored?
  • Recognized Competence
    Is the SME recommended by her peers and managers based on years of experience? Or is a manager merely volunteering the SME because she does not have enough work to do? What are the SME's qualifications, and how will those qualifications help the project implement or upgrade a new system? Does the SME possess outstanding performance appraisals?
  • Independence
    Is the SME under pressure to keep her team's legacy systems? Is she willing to provide valuable input and insight to help implement a system that can phase out the system that she currently supports?
  • Availability
    Is the SME available to attend workshops and meetings related to the design of a system? Will she be present for all necessary meetings during the analysis phase?
  • Authority
    Can the SME approve and sign off on a business requirement independently without consulting others, or does she need to get approval from her superiors or seek advice from other groups or teams?

The evaluation of these criteria factors will help the project identify the SME that will provide the most utility to the project. The SME plays a vital role in helping to test a software application whether the application is homegrown, COTS, ERP, or CRM. The suggested guidelines will help organizations to efficiently manage, task, and review the SME's work products and deliverables, thereby increasing the effectiveness of the SME.

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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