trapezeYou wouldn’t trust your life to an amateur, would you?  Heck, most of us wouldn’t trust our car, an appliance, or jewelry with an amateur.  You want an expert, especially when something needs to be fixed.  The same concept applies to your business life.  Especially if you’re the one who has been hired to build the solution that is going to do the fixing (a common aspect of being a BPM solution provider).  You need a Subject Matter Expert aka SME to help you.

I’ve heard lamentations about SMEs, because they are human beings, after all, and they are just as prone to the same frustrations as everyone else.  Especially when they suddenly have to continue doing their regular jobs while ALSO now helping you do your job.  That would be annoying for anyone, right?  So instead of being a new chore/hassle for the SME to “deal” with, you need to become their partner.  And fast.

You need the SME to:

Tell you about the as-is process.  This is standard, and they should be able to walk you through everything.  ops-improve2

  1. Have the SME go through the process more than once with you.
  2. Recreate the process in a flow and walk them through what you understand.
  3. When/if they think of details they forgot, add them to your flow.
  4. It’s your responsibility to ask the questions that ensure you have the full flow.

(SMEs get really frustrated if you blame them later for not telling you something if you never asked them about it.  Of course, you don’t know what you don’t know, but the burden is on you to get them to share.)

Tell you what they think is wrong/cumbersome/slow/unreliable about the as-is process.  Sometimes they won’t just come out and tell you what that is, so you may have to get that information out of them.

  1. Do not insult their as-is process, no matter how problematic it may be.  (If the SME insults it, you can nod along with a furrowed brow, but it’s kind of like that thing where you can insult your little brother, but if the neighbor kid insults him, you’re beating up the neighbor kid.)
  2. Use your soft-skills to ask tactful questions about anything that seems overly complicated.  It’s possible that some old workarounds became permanent processes…if your system can fix the original problem, process simplification can be easily achieved.
  3. Become their confidante—this system may have been a thorn in their side for years—it’s very likely that they know exactly why.

Tell you what they need.  And then what they want.  Needs are basic must haves to get the job done, but wants are features that will make a SME’s dream come true. 

  1. SMEs probably know what they need in non-technical terms. You must bridge the gap for them, identifying how your solution is going to accomplish their needs.
  2. SMEs may not know what your BPM solution can provide to fix their problems.  That’s for you to know.
  3. Take copious notes, but be careful about making promises—you don’t want to offer something your client hasn’t bought and/or doesn’t have the timeline necessary to deliver every bell and whistle.

 Be your primary beta tester.  In an agile development cycle, get their sign off on UI mock-ups, and any portions of deliverable product you can show them. 

  1. They will know immediately if what you are showing them is what they had in mind (Remind them that the look and feel can be polished up when the system is close to its go-live date.
  2. Help them articulate anything that isn’t quite right so you can fix it.
  3. Do this on repeat up to and through User Acceptance Testing.

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There are other happy things that a good SME can share that will help you navigate the project better.  They are often enterprise/project historians, insiders, and (likely) respected members of the client community.  They can tell you who to ask about other aspects of work if they are fuzzy about anything.  They can also offer helpful “office politics” advice if it becomes a concern. 

The other half of this relationship is, of course, you.  You must hold up your end of the bargain, as well.  You must approach the SME and the client as a whole with respect (they’re paying you, after all—and they need your help).  You need to be a SME for them, of course, so you must bring your own expertise, as well. 

ArchiTECH Solutions has a deep well of experience working with SMEs to accomplish project success.  Our Center of Excellence Solution can assist with BPM adoption, setting standards for success, and supporting enterprise teams as they become acclimated to BPM processes and systems.  Call us for more information at 703-972-9155 or contact us by e-mail at

Disclaimer:  If you are working with one of those SMEs who is checked out, unwilling to help, or even outright belligerent, you need to communicate such issues to a supervisor or primary stakeholder for the project.  Your client will either have a discussion with the SME to indicate the importance of cooperation, assign a partner to help “handle” the SME, or assign a different SME to your project. In some cases, your client may blame you for not being able to work with the SME.  If this comes to pass, soft skills and rapport development are your best approaches to get the SME successfully engaged (make friends, take them to lunch, bring donuts/bagels/candy, tell funny stories about your kids/pets/parents–whatever it takes to relate to this SME, figure out what they enjoy outside of work and get them to talk about it).  Once it’s time to get back to work, try asking questions in a different way.  Maybe move forward with some aspects of development and do a “hands on” show-and-tell to get the SME excited and engaged in building something new.  And if none of this works, it might be time for hard conversations about getting the job done.  Communicate how you want to support the project, but that it’s a two way street.  Most people will come around, but if they don’t, such a project might be a good case for “cutting your losses.”