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The Subject Matter Expert: Temporary Resources, Full-Time Specialists

When people come down with a cold, most of us know how to treat it.  Lots of fluids, bed rest, vitamin C, and perhaps some decongestants to treat some of the annoying symptoms of being sick like a runny nose.  However, should you break a bone, treatment is best left to someone who is a Subject Matter Expert or SME.  Wikipedia defines a SME as “a subject-matter expert (SME) or domain expert[;] a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic.”  Certainly, a doctor is someone who has gone to school for many years to learn how to treat a variety of human ailments, including setting a broken bone.

This article about SMEs is the latest in a series about Project Roles.  We have been working our way through the table below – reading left to right – discussing the part that each plays on a project.

Project Roles

The above definition of SME from Wikipedia is a good one to start with, but on a project, there are a few other characteristics to understand:

SMEs tend to have higher hourly rates or per use cost because of the special knowledge they bring to a project.  Remember, these folks are highly trained and/or experienced in a particular area.  They have great depth of understanding and can help provide the team with invaluable insight about risk, cost, schedule, and the work to be performed in order to result in a quality product.  That expertise comes with a price tag.  Think about mechanics and car repair.  Labor is often equally (if not more) expensive than the cost of replacement parts.

Given the cost of SMEs, a project should use them judiciously and only when they are needed most.  In contrast to a Core Team Member who stays with the project for the entire period of performance, SMEs are typically brought in at strategic points such as during the planning phase and then also to execute the specific tasks for which their services are required.  Even if the project cannot afford a SME to perform the work, it might be prudent to have one on retainer who can act as a trainer, reviewer, or mentor to other, less expensive (and perhaps more available) staff who will complete the tasks.

It is helpful if SMEs are adept at establishing good working relationships quickly.  This is because they are thrust into sometimes unfamiliar teams and they need to be able to collaborate, cooperate, and (perhaps) direct the work of existing members.  Someone with poor social skills may not function well as a SME.  However, sometimes there are limited resources who can perform a particular task, regardless of the individuals’ interpersonal skills.  The Project Manager bears some responsibility in terms of establishing a project culture that welcomes the transient resources who join and then leave the team.

Next time, let’s talk about the Client.  (Not behind his or her back of course.  That would be rude.)  See you then!

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