Managing SMEs – Part 2: Selling the Concept to Management
by Philip Rastocny
Just the thought of dealing with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can create stress in the life of any documentation manager. Some SMEs can be self consumed, preoccupied, distant, and even rude. But why do these behaviors exist? This article, a follow-on to Managing SMEs – Part 1: A Primer for Success, describes how to sell your team’s professionalism and how the writers on your team can sell themselves individually.
In Part 1, we discussed the challenges of timely interviews, how this impacts your schedules, the morale of your group, and the tight wire you walk of accuracy and delivery. Also covered were the planning of strategic and tactical elements, contingencies, compromises, and the effectiveness of the number of reviews.
In part 2 we switch the focus to members of your management team and what you can do to sell your team’s professionalism. Also included are hints on how your writers can individually sell themselves.
Professionalism – The Presentation of your Staff
If there is a single element under your control, it is your ability to encourage your team to present themselves as the professionals they are. SMEs will take note of a person’s professionalism, especially upon first meeting, and set an opinion and pattern accordingly.
Appearance – Dress For Success
Cats and dogs supply great lessons on how to present one’s self to another person. Mix a cat and a dog together, the dog will most likely attack the cat, and the cat will defend itself. People are much the same in that either they like each other or they don’t. Professionalism plays a key role in creating ways to prevent attacking each other but dogs get along with dogs better than dogs do with cats. So the psychology of writers and SMEs getting along is also important.
One characteristic in subliminally judging one’s professionalism is appearance. An SME will identify with other people in their profession by the uniforms they wear. For example, an SME who dresses in blue jeans and sneakers may resent someone dressed in a tie. But the real question is “What does the SME respect?”
A good lead is the SME’s manager. If they dress similarly, then similar dress may be all that is needed to make a professional impression. Dressing differently than the last writer this SME interacted with is also a way to change that SME’s impression of writers.
Something as simple as a watch or a shoe or a notebook and the way people appear can get an edge in the SME’s level of cooperation. While insisting that your writers change their appearance may be totally inappropriate, doing other simple things can lead to huge impacts on the SME’s opinion of a writer. Small moves can have big impacts.
Consistency – How Do You Interact?
SMEs are – or at least they are generally categorized as – professionals. In the realm of professionals, certain behaviors, vocabularies, and even cars are associated with professionals. If your writers portray themselves – as the professionals they indeed are – respect as a co-professional will naturally be given. If they portray themselves as inferiors or subordinates, they will be treated as such. It is therefore important to establish professionalism early, preferably from the start.
Contributing to ways to solve issues is a great way to establish teamwork. Asking questions like “How would you say this?” or “I’m thinking of doing it this way. What do you think?” allows an SME to play a part in the creation of the documentation rather than just its review. This gives the SME ownership in not only its technical accuracy but also its style, presentation, and flow. It also demonstrates to the SME that writers can actually be collaborative, another form of professional respect.
Once respect as a professional is achieved, maintaining that level is essential. Consistency in professionalism goes a long way in getting an SME’s cooperation. After all, if you don’t respect someone, you naturally place their needs lower than those you do respect.
Authority – Who is the Real Expert?
As professionals, writers know how to effectively communicate and SMEs know how something works. On some occasions, SMEs attempt to do a writer’s job. And while they are best intending when this occurs, the real authority here is the writer.
After a writer establishes him or her self as a professional, such suggestions can be taken as just that and should be thought of as opportunities to improve clarity. Typically, as long as a writer hears out an SME and does not dismiss the suggestion, both the SME’s and the writer’s egos will not be bruised and cooperation continues. Coaching your team in this political tightrope can be the single best suggestion you can make to your team. Understanding that even though your writers think something is perfectly clear to them, it may not be as clear to others. Listening closely to the criticism and identifying the real objection creates a pattern for successful compromise. Reminding the SME of the education level assumed for the audience in the documentation plan may be necessary.
Organization – The Impression of Being Prepared
Professionals expect something from each other. SMEs expect something of their professional peers and writers do the same. While these expectations are different between these two groups, finding common areas and capitalizing on them creates respect between the two professions.
For example, being on time for meetings creates one impression. It demonstrates the ability of a writer to be organized, conscientious, and respectful of another person’s time. This simple act shows an SME all of these without saying a single word. Encourage your writers to find ways to demonstrate their own professionalism regularly and cooperation will flourish.
Visibility – The Squeaky Wheel gets the Grease…
Procrastination is deferment or avoidance of an action or task. It is human nature for some people to procrastinate, and the last time I checked, both writers and SMEs were still human. While your writers can be dealt with directly for procrastinating, SMEs are beyond your control. Here lies the most common problem in managing SMEs. Modifying such behavior is tough and usually will go unaltered until a significant emotional event occurs that changes a person’s belief system.
Procrastination stems from the belief that there is adequate time to delay and other priorities supersede addressing an action or task. It is also human nature for people to avoid pain rather than obtaining pleasure. One form of pain that a writer can inflict upon an SME to alter the behavior of procrastination is to serve as a conscience. One simple technique is to schedule reviews at a mutually-agreed interval. This gets buy-in from both the SME and the writer, reaffirms the professionalism in the SME-writer relationship, and allows the SME to actively participate in the process.
Maintaining a high-level of visibility during the entire development cycle is also important. Disappearing for weeks on end and surfacing at review times is a poor way to establish a professional relationship. Writers should update the SME of status once a week to maintain their involvement and keep SME’s informed of upcoming milestones.
Motivation –That Well-Known Radio Station WII-FM
What’s In It for Me (WII-FM)? Along the human nature characteristics is SME-writer interaction is this phenomenon of perceived benefit. Both the writer and the SME must believe that what they are creating will do some good or serve some useful purpose. Reminding people of this fact can influence their motivation.
Other elements, such as priorities, commitments, and politics, also intertwine in this web of motivation.
Priorities – What is the SME’s Reviewing Priority?
When an SME does not review a document, the single most common excuse is that they just didn’t have time in their schedule to do so. What this really means is that they did not believe it to be a high-enough priority among their other tasks to address product documentation in a timely manner.
While it is true that the product or project must be completed so that sales can be made, it is also true that once this product is sold to a customer, servicing that product immediately kicks in. Designing products that are reliable, easy to use, and easily serviced is an SME’s commission. Lowering service costs increases corporate profits and can trickle back into the SME’s pocket as a bonus or dividend. Accurate and timely documentation is crucial in supporting this model.
Commitment – Obtaining Buy-in
Paraphrasing Upton Sinclair, It is difficult to get someone to understand something when their salary depends upon them not understanding it. Said another way, SMEs may believe that they only get paid to create a product and not to review a document. This means that such a person is not committed to all aspects of delivering the product.
Altering the belief that a product is more than the result of an individual or a factory or a marketing effort, but rather a complete corporate team effort can go a long way in reversing this belief system. Doing whatever it takes to create a complete product – sales, service, design, testing, marketing, and production – all tie into a company’s profitability.
Value – Selling Your Team
Combining all of these tactics in working with SMEs can be thought of as effectively selling your team. Demonstrating that high-quality documentation has value and that corporate success is determined by it must be consistently presented to all member teams with which you interact. SMEs are only a part of this team and your effectiveness can determine the level of cooperation received by the SMEs.
Using your weight as a professional goes a long way in establishing your credibility and the level of cooperation you receive from other teams. Leverage this fact and help will easily flow from the top down.
Subject Matter Experts and Writers walk a relationship tightrope: both need each other, yet both often look upon one another as rivals. Both are excellent in their professions and few can do the other’s job. Establishing a quality working relationship involves effort as does anything worthwhile.
Part of this effort involves establishing and then maintaining a professional relationship. Several techniques can be applied to improve credibility, information flow, and respect.
Anticipating problems and finding creative ways to resolve them involves adequate front-end planning and flexibility. Balancing review cycles and work loads is just one of these solutions.
Frustration is a sign that you need to change. Change may involve reassignments, rescheduling, or revising. Focusing on solutions keeps projects moving forward.
Positioning your team as essential contributors to a product’s success always yields positive results. Create respect for your organization by motivating and inspiring your team and then selling your department’s value to other organizations. Managing SMEs is not that difficult once this respect is achieved.
About the Author
Philip Rastocny was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 1948. He received degrees in Electrical and Biomedical Engineering Technology from Oklahoma State and a Master’s Certification in Project Management from Steven’s Institute of Technology. He has attended the Anthony Robbins Mastery University and also has several other motivational, organizational, and life training programs under his belt.
Philip has worked in the biomedical, communications, and energy conservation industries for notable companies like Bell Telephone Laboratories, Hospal Medical (Sandoz), Avaya Communication, and Lucent Technologies. He has been a technical writer, editor, trainer, IT manager, project manager, and consultant, and also as senior management in energy conservation companies.