Sometimes on a project your team will include a Subject Matter Expert (SME). I think the general idea of these individuals is that they provide deep domain experience to members of the project team who may not really understand the space they’re working in very well – makes perfect sense. A couple of examples where I have seen the SME role used is implementing GIS within utilities and local government. In both contexts the SME provides an in depth knowledge of their respective domain, i.e. a water network, or perhaps a government property model. They may provide expert advice on entity modelling and relationships, provide real world data examples and scenarios and of course act as a natural liaison with other parts of an organisation you may need to dig into.
There are a few things however that concern me about how the SME role is often used:
The SME role can exercise a great deal of authority. Executive sponsorship will often cede responsibility to an SME irrespective of the nature of the calls they need to make. SME’s can also be viewed or boxed into the de-facto representative for ‘the business’. In a Scrum environment I would caution the use of an SME as a replacement for the product owner role. Whilst they provide invaluable experience, they are not necessarily positioned or motivated to assess value or make calls on priorities.
2. They aren’t users
In my experience an SME role is often given to someone who has a great deal of experience. However that experience is associated with a perspective based upon a deep understanding of detail which may not translate well to the goals of the project. Take our utility example, an SME can provide information on the logical and physical networks, helping you model data and understand the relationship and behaviour of the real world network, however that depth of knowledge does not necessarily translate to the needs of a customer service representative or an incident response operator. SME’s aren’t always users.
3. Edge Cases
I have found that SME’s can have an intimate knowledge of edge cases, whilst these are not invalid you must decide where these cases sit within the overall value you’re trying to deliver – I’ve worked on projects that have literally ground to a complete standstill while edge cases are reasoned - with the end result being an over complication of the finished product yielding little real value.
If you’re working on a project with an SME then it can be useful to keep these questions in the back of your mind.