The term “stakeholders” is often used to categorize everyone that a team works with who is not explicitly a customer or a user of their product. The trouble with the term stakeholders is that there are a lot of different types of stakeholders that have different interactions with your team.
One of the more important types of stakeholders is the Subject Matter Expert (SME).These are the people who know the most about your business process or your technical architecture.
SME’s may also be users depending on the nature of the product you are working on.
They are an important people to interact with, especially if you’re working on an internal product because they are the ones who know the most about the business processes you’re building a product to support and the infrastructure you’re trying to build the product on.
SMEs are labeled experts for a reason, there is often not very many good ones and they tend to be in high demand in your organization. This means that they may not always be available as you might like. If they know they are in demand, they may not be the easiest people to work with either.
You may not have a clear SME for a given business process. Sometimes the proclaimed SME doesn’t posses the expertise you expected them to have. In those cases, the product person may end up becoming the SME that wasn’t there before.
During the month of January Inside Product explores the Subject Matter Expert, starting this week with some perspectives on what a SME is and whether product people should start out with subject matter expertise.
If you have any experience on working with SME’s or questions about how to work with them, let me know in the comments. I’d be happy to incorporate your insights or answer your questions in subsequent newsletters this month.
Subject Matter Experts
Marty Cagan provided his perspective about subject matter experts in which he includes Business Analysts. “The defining characteristics of these people is that they are experts in the particulars of what the business does. For example, it’s normal for tax software companies to have tax experts on staff, and for payroll services companies to have a few people that have deep knowledge of the national, state and local regulations regarding compensation and payroll taxes, and health care software companies to have physicians, nurses or other medical specialists.”
Are Business Analysts Subject Matter Experts?
Marty may see business analysts as subject matter experts. Many in the business analysis community don’t necessarily see themselves as SME’s. Neil Schiller for example believes that “a Business Analyst is not, to my mind, an SME – a Subject Matter Expert. Businesses already have them, they’re the people that do the jobs that make the organisation tick. If you think you need to bring a BA in to pick up the role these people play then you have a misunderstanding of what a BA is and, more importantly, you have serious problems within your business.”
And Adrian Reed described the “ongoing debate within the BA community over the level of industry (business domain) specific knowledge that a BA should be expected to have. Some organizations require their BAs to have extensive business domain knowledge, and will generally only recruit BAs who have worked in the same (or a very similar) industry. Others look for core analysis skills, and are happy to recruit BAs from completely different industries.”
So are business analysts SME’s? I suggest you read these posts and make your own conclusions. My experience has shown that you don’t have to be a subject matter expert when you start working on something, but you often end up becoming one by the time you are done.
How Product-Pairing can grow the next generation of Product Managers
The question of how much subject matter expertise is needed in order to be effective in any product role is quite common. Darren Duarte explores the value of subject matter expertise for product managers and one way to provide that expertise: two product managers working within one team. In this post, he explores the attributes of a Product Manager subject matter expert (SME) and a Product Manager Expert. These concepts are useful for any organisation wanting success in their teams, especially those with teams in their early stages.
The Subject Matter Expert (A Misunderstood Product Owner Stance)
Robbin Schuurman took a look at the Subject Matter Expert question in relation to product owners. His conclusion is that it can be both a blessing and a curse when a product owner takes a Subject Matter Expert stance. His concern that a PO who is also the SME can tend to micro-manage and spoon feed the development team. “Although there’s nothing wrong with understanding the business processes really well as a Product Owner, you don’t have to be the expert!”
The Complete Guide to Using Subject Matter Experts for Better Content Marketing
To get a better idea of the benefits and challenges of working with SME’s who are not product people, I thought it would be helpful to get a different, but related perspective. Angela Morris takes a look at working with SME’s for content marketing. Content marketing and product development are similar enough that I this post provides some helpful ideas. Angela explores the benefits and challenges of working with SME’s and provides a checklist for working with SME’s that may help you decide how to best work with your SME’s.
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Kent J. McDonald
Founder | KBP.Media