Understanding the “S” in “SME”

Is your Subject Matter Expert an expert in the right subject?

Several years ago, I accepted an accounting assignment for a government contractor, reporting directly to the controller. The company was using a sophisticated enterprise-level accounting system, but they hadn’t balanced their cash account in close to a year.

My first task was balancing this account, so I requested the company’s bank statements. Bookkeeping 101, right? Oddly, the controller didn’t understand why I needed the bank statements to complete this task. It was only when I showed him a $22,000 payment that had never been entered into the system that he was able to grasp the problem.

Over the following weeks, a host of additional issues came to light. Billing was three months behind, the government incurred-cost submission was a year overdue, and the contract backlog was about a fourth of the amount that the controller had estimated. To top things off, the company was paying an exorbitant fee for the accounting system. I had no idea why they had hired such an inept controller.

It turned out he had been the lead consultant on a six-month accounting system implementation two years earlier. Unbeknownst to the company, he was a software implementation SME, not an accounting SME—and he had zero accounting experience!

This story comes to mind each time we begin an enterprise software implementation for a client. We know the software, but who knows the system? Who knows the client’s rules, policies and regulations? Who has knowledge of the specialized human resources that the client’s executive management needs?

In short, the subject matters! Don’t assume that a software expert is also an expert in the software’s subject matter. It’s crucial to understand the expertise you need and assign the proper experts to your project team.

If you’re a software developer, hire subject matter experts who can bring their industry’s best practices into your software design. If you’re the end user, assign senior-level experts in system functionality to participate directly in the implementation. If you’re a third-party implementation team, ask for the proper support early in the process and use it. 

At Tagence, we have a standard practice of revisiting our clients’ business drivers each quarter. This keeps us informed of a project’s C-suite goals such as reducing risk and cost, increasing productivity and gaining new insights. It also ensures that we always locate the correct Subject Matter Expert for every project we implement.

The “S” in “SME” matters! Always know which “S” you need!