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Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

The term Subject Matter Expert, or SME (pronounced Smee), is used to identify someone with a depth of knowledge in a technical area, outside the confines of a project. I use the term here to refer to that group of project team members (and stakeholders) you have identified in your Change Management Plan as responsible for the analysis of a change request for the purpose of assessing the feasibility, effort, cost, value, and attendant risks. Your identification of the right set of SMEs and the way you manage them will be a deciding factor in the success of your approach to managing project changes.

Identifying the right SMEs is the first step. You should identify at least one SME for each area of the project which might require work should the proposed change be accepted. For a software development project the list could include:

This list is not meant to be comprehensive and each unique project team will have its own set of SMEs.

This does not mean that the complete list of SMEs will be required to analyze each change request received by the project. The way in which you engage the SMEs will depend on the work required for the project, the size of the project, and the complexity of the project. The goal is to identify anyone, or group, who could potentially be required to provide work or re-work to implement a requested change and have them represented by an SME. Not everyone thus identified will be called an SME. For example, the programmer who is best positioned to provide analysis information on the impact of a requested change on their code does not have to be a recognized SME but will need to provide analysis. I will refer to everyone who must provide analysis on change requests as an SME for the sake of simplicity.

The next step is to communicate your expectations to the SMEs. The expectation is that these people will analyze each change request that the person coordinating change requests forwards to them for analysis. The analysis required may be to determine there is no impact from the requested change, or it may require them to analyze work amounting to months of effort. The amount of time the SME requires will depend on the nature of the request and this amount of time will drive the response time promised to the requester. Your SME needs to give the request a cursory examination to determine if there is any work at all involved. If there is no work on their part, they need to communicate this immediately to the coordinator. If there is work involved, and therefore analysis required, they need to provide you with an estimate for completion of that analysis. This estimate becomes a deadline they must commit to and this deadline is communicated to the requester (and anyone else on the distribution list).

The work of the SME will be treated somewhat differently when work is being done under contract which specifies that this work is to be paid for by the customer, or there is no language in the contract or SOW that provides for change request analysis. Your SME must provide you with an estimate of the amount of billable time their analysis would require. The cumulative value of these estimates from all the SMEs will be the total estimate for that request and you will need to communicate the estimate to your customer. It is then up to the customer to decide whether they will incur the cost of the estimate or not. No analysis should be done unless the customer commits to paying. You can authorize the analysis and communicate the estimated time for completion as soon as the commitment is given. From this point forward the work of the SME on this type of project is the same as any other, with the exception that their time must be tracked and the information used to create the invoice sent to the customer.

SMEs must be given time, called buffer, to analyze the change requests that come their way. Every project will have different requirements for change, but every project must grant the SMEs some buffer time to perform their analysis. This time may be calculated as a percentage of the total effort required for them to perform their work or as an absolute number of hours or days. This is the case even when this work is paid for by an external customer. Failure to provide sufficient analysis time in your plan may result in the SME's inability to analyze change requests and/or their failure to meet deadlines for other project work assigned to them. You need to monitor change requests so that you are aware when an SME is reaching the limits of their analysis buffer. If there are too many SMEs for you to manage in this way, have them give you warning when they approach the limits of their analysis buffer so that you can take preventive action.

The change coordinator must compile a contact list for the project SMEs. This list will be used to communicate change requests to SMEs who would be affected by the change. The change coordinator should perform a preliminary analysis on each change request they receive. This analysis will allow them to determine which SMEs they need to engage for analysis and then circulate the change request to those SMEs. There will be change requests that defy the coordinator’s ability to make this determination in which case they will have to settle for eliminating SMEs who clearly are not affected by the requested change. It may be impossible to eliminate anyone from the list in extreme cases and then the change request should be circulated to the entire SME contact list.

Don’t toss the change request over the fence at the SME and expect them to meet deadlines without further action. The change coordinator must monitor each change request and remind SMEs on the circulation list when their initial response, or analysis, is due. Determine the reason for SMEs missing deadlines. If you identify the exhaustion of their change request analysis buffer as the reason, you will have to take corrective action. You have aperformance issue if this is not the case and you will have to manage the issue in the same fashion as the missing of any other project deadline.

The work you are looking for from your SMEs is an assessment of the amount of effort implementing the change would take. The change request is actually a mini business case. The requester should have stated the case for implementing the change in terms of the tangible or intangible benefit to the project, now it is up to the SMEs to calculate the cost (and feasibility) of implementation. Your process may or may not require that effort be converted to cost and duration. The change coordinator will be responsible for summing all the individual efforts and the project manager (if this is someone other than the change coordinator) will be responsible for converting effort to cost and determining the overall impact on the project schedule. The SME should also identify any risks that implementing the change would introduce to the project. The risk and mitigation strategies that would be necessary to manage it will be entered on cost side of the change request.

Not all SMEs will be project team members and not all SMEs who are team members will be engaged for the duration of the project. Team members responsible for design deliverables such as Functional Specifications will usually be disengaged from the project at the beginning of the build phase and will be engaged on other projects or operational work. These people may also be employed by the project under contract in which case they will be unavailable for further analysis work. You must arrange to either replace these people with another qualified SME in their area of expertise, or make arrangements with their new project manager or functional manager to have access to their time. There is no easy solution to this problem. The best advice I can give is to do your best to identify back-ups for departing SMEs, limit the number of change requests they are asked to review, and ask their new or existing managers for as modest an amount of time as possible. Sticking with our Business Analyst SME as an example, the organization should acknowledge the benefit of having a limited amount of that person’s time available for the purpose of estimating design effort required for the change and changing the spec should the request be approved. Introducing the change without updating the spec will make support more difficult. Try to identify a Systems Analyst who is familiar with the Functional Spec and can cover for the Business Analyst if the Business Analyst is unavailable.

Iterative projects allow a little more margin for error than Waterfall projects. The Waterfall project allows you to estimate the time required for change request analysis once. You won’t be able to adjust this buffer, once set, without impacting your project plans. Development done iteratively allows you to learn from the previous iteration and adjust buffers accordingly for those SMEs who contribute work to the iteration. Watch for an increasing trend in the number of change requests requiring analysis iteration over iteration. If you find yourself having to increase analysis buffers, or finding that buffers are exhausted before the end of the iteration, this could be an indication of problems with your requirements gathering methods.

Management of SMEs for the project begins with best project management practices in the area of human resource management; the tips and tricks described in this article are meant to augment these practices, not replace them. If you have been certified as a PMP® you will already be familiar with these best practices. If not, I recommend investigating the possibility of getting certified. three O Project Solutions offers a CBT product, AceIt©, which has prepared project managers all over the world to pass their exams, check it out.