Subject matter experts are very often hard workers with valuable organisational memory. They know how things work and, most importantly, know how to fix things when they don’t work. In the world of large organisations, this often applies to IT systems.

Referred to as SMEs, they are always known to their immediate managers and colleagues. They are the people you get sent to when no one else knows the answer.

What is the Myth?

They are the ones who are in demand for every project under the sun, because it is assumed that having direct access to a person who knows so much about a certain area will save time and rework.

They are often seen as stars and treated with kid gloves. These individuals often work crazy hours, and are seen to be self-sacrificing and dedicated to keeping everything in their specialised world working well.

And often they are, so why wouldn’t SMEs be the ones to play a starring role in your team? They have so much knowledge that it’s difficult to imagine how you can achieve any effective change without them.

These experienced and hardworking individuals are used to being stars, so it’s natural to assume they will shine in an environment that’s all about the things they know.

What Is the Truth?
The individuals who hold the positions of SME will be in those roles because of what they already know and understand about ‘x’, where x is a topic central to your program.

Their credibility will be based on this knowledge and understanding, as well as the way they have worked over time to solve problems, and are likely to have rescued their team and organisation in one or more crises.

The truth is that knowledge often equates to power, and expert power diminishes to the extent it is shared. Therefore, while their knowledge is vital, some SMEs will subtly or even overtly sabotage a team’s progress and its ability to identify radically new solutions.

SME’s Have the Most to Lose
When someone is unconsciously competent in a specialty, it can take a lot of effort and skill to communicate with those who are low in that competence. Not all SMEs will be open to the personal growth required to embrace new ideas and changes.

It won’t be unusual, when considering alternative ways of doing things, to be told, “You don’t understand”, or “It can’t be done”, or “It won’t work that way”, or “That’s very courageous!”

As individuals, SMEs have the most to lose from any major change because they will forgo the power and status that comes from knowing more about a topic than anyone else in the organisation.

This understanding can often be tied to their sense of self-worth, their status, and also their income. So be aware that, of all the people on your team, they can be the ones most motivated to hold onto the status quo or, alternatively, have a closed view of what constitutes the ultimate ‘fix’ – which may be one that they have personally been championing for some time.

Bring out the Best in Your Team
It is true that you will be hard pressed to successfully implement any significant changes without working with, and benefiting from, the knowledge and experience of the organisation’s current experts.

In addition, the credibility of your team’s solutions is likely to be questioned where they are not supported by a respected SME. The key is to understand and be able to bring out the best in the entire team, including your SMEs.

While your SMEs won’t inevitably be the stars on your team, it’s also true that they could be. Either way, there is every likelihood that you won’t be able to achieve very much without working with them. The exceptions will be those that have created an impression of expertise that is not real. In large organisations, I’d suggest this is rare; what’s more common is for the importance of their area of expertise to be overstated.

So the first consideration is to determine what type of SME you are working with. You can then look at how to optimise your team setup and style of working to make it as engaging an experience as possible for the SME, as well as the rest of the team.

A considered review of your SMEs will provide the insights you need. Is their area of knowledge essential to your success? Are they team players, willing and keen to share their skills and understanding with others? Do they find it difficult to work in teams or relate to others’ ways of thinking?

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