Tips for when you are missing the E in SME?

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Today we’ll explore what you can do if your subject matter experts (SMEs) aren’t actually experts in the subject matter! I actually ran into this scenario a few years ago. I don’t want to actually describe the specific project to reveal anything about the organization or people it happened in, so I have made up an analogous project up instead. This particular project wasn’t actually for building software, it was for training. It turns out the point of this is still similar to working with SMEs in software.

My made-up project:

There was a project to create a training course for cruise ship pilots to
learn to use the ship’s technology to properly navigate shallow waters as they
approached land. Our subject matter experts were the ship’s pilots.

We tackled the project by doing our research on the science behind the technologies, in hopes that we would be able to speak the language of our SMEs. There was one popular book that all cruise ship pilots relied on to learn about it, so we read that book. We then headed out to gather information on what the specific technology was on the cruise ship. Then we set up meetings with our SMEs to interview them. All things said, we were given plenty of time with the ship’s experienced pilots, and we were able to actually get on the ship to look at the technology.

What was surprising to us was that in talking to the ship pilots about specifically how the technology on their ship worked, we learned they did not know. I guess that’s why we were building training for them! And when we talked about the science behind the technology, they were impressed – but mostly because they didn’t understand it. I was honestly shocked at how much they didn’t know. Certainly they weren’t crashing ships into the land too frequently, but it wasn’t clear if that was because of their intuition about how to navigate using the technology or because they had not run into a bad situation (pun intended!).

Again, I have to say this – this project was not about cruise ship pilots at all, and I mean no offense towards them!

So what can you do with no real SMEs?

Faced with the reality that our SMEs weren’t actually true experts, we couldn’t rely on them to provide the content for the training course. They could help us enough to validate that we were asking the right questions, but they just didn’t know all of the answers. That meant, we had to get creative about how to find the answers. The short answer to this problem – we had to become the SMEs! We weren’t really all that knowledgeable about ship piloting, and in fact, our only related experience was that some of us had been on cruises.

Here is what worked:

  1. When we did ask the named-SMEs questions, we could not ask generic questions. We had to ask very specific questions, sometimes coming at it from 10 different directions and asking 10 different people, to ensure we had a trustworthy answer. Or more commonly, to realize we needed to do more research.
  2. We had to get our hands on the technologies being trained. This is similar to requirements in software – you really do need to actually use the existing software. It adds invaluable context to what you are learning along the way.
  3. We read any books or articles on the subject matter, particularly the theory behind it. It helped that we had backgrounds in science. This allowed us to connect the dots between the controls on the technology and the reason they worked. This was actually the most useful thing we did.
  4. In dealing with the actual hardware, we had to call the manufacturers to get to the bottom of how the functionality worked. We read specs, and in some cases, we talked to the manufacturers engineers.

All in all, we think it was a success! Then again, this is a tricky thing to measure the success of, but that’s another post for another day. The ship pilots were certainly very excited by the training we built – they all felt like they were learning quite a bit from us on this topic.

What I can say for sure is that I look back at that project with fond memories, despite the unexpected SME challenges. It is part of why I enjoy consulting, in that I get to learn new subject matter with every project. And frankly, I know way more about “cruise ship navigation” than one could ever imagine!

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