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THE ABCs OF SMEs [PM Network]
[November 28, 2012]

THE ABCs OF SMEs [PM Network]


THE RIGHT SUBJECT-MATTER EXPERT (SME) can play a starring role in the success of a project, filling knowledge gaps to take a team from good to great. Though they may only work on a limited part of an effort, SMEs often make all the difference, whether they're providing complicated technical insight or lending their specialized risk-management expertise.

Marc Gorcey, PMP, has worked with numerous SMEs as a project manager for IT services firm CGI in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He relies on the expertise of SMEs on key projects, most of which involve building interactive mobile and web applications.

"Imagine if you were planning to do a bunch of renovations to your house and there was one key piece that you thought would be great, but you didn't know how to do it," Mr. Gorcey says. "If there's somebody who can help you with that one key thing, that somebody would be an SME." Yet, for all their compelling observations and spot-on strategizing, SMEs can present both personal and professional challenges as they fly from one project team to the next. Before bringing an SME onto a project, carefully weigh these pros and cons.

PRO High-Speed Productivity Skilled SMEs can help project managers circumvent much of the uncertainty that comes with getting a project off the ground - a particularly prized advantage in fast-paced, technology-related fields. That quick validation of the project's strategy and direction coincides with another speed boost: SMEs can replace the need for trial-and-error when it comes to project work, Mr. Gorcey says.

"We can go to an SME and say, 'Here's what we're thinking of doing,' and they can say right off why it may or may not work," he says. "In the end, that saves us a lot of time, money and rework." In addition to managing his own projects, Brian Thomsen, head of professional services at information management company Stibo Systems in Melbourne, Australia, is often brought on other projects as an SME because of his in-depth knowledge of e-commerce. For one project, he lent his knowledge of e-commerce workflow processes. In doing so, he discovered the client could onboard 10 times as many products and images with the same staff and headcount by replacing spreadsheets and manual data entry with an automated workflow system. This prevented the company from making approximately 90 unnecessary hires.

Pro A Path to Business Benefits One of the most beneficial contributions SMEs can make is to deliver business value by "advising on a project's overall strategic value, looking at the marketplace, looking at customers and where they actually are in the market, and guiding a project manager in the right direction," Mr. Thomsen says.

If projects are defined only by process- or technology-oriented people, project teams risk downplaying or even overlooking business value and ROI. "That's where we need to use SMEs: to gain a bigger business perspective on a particular project," Mr. Thomsen says.

When developing a specialized financial tool, Mr. Gorcey called upon an SME with customer relationship management (CRM) expertise to convey what the market was looking for and review proposed solutions for viability. Thanks to the SME's experience implementing CRM tools in the company's target industries, he identified several quick and easy usability improvements that helped circumvent costs and speed product development.

"In the end, the SME gave us important guidance at a key moment in our design process," Mr. Gorcey says.

PRO Freeing Up Resources SMEs can liberate project managers from tending to the minutiae of day-to-day tasks, allowing them to focus on core competencies such as managing communication and timelines, says Gaurav Chauhan, PMP, a property services project manager in Haryana, India.

"An SME can absorb the tasks that float within the scope of his or her expertise, such as finance or risk management," he says.

For example, if the project manager possesses sharp business skills, an SME could take on everyday project oversight details while the project manager focuses on interacting with the stakeholders. In addition to freeing the project manager's time, this SME can improve team members' efficiency by helping them understand the project's requirements and the roles of each team member, says Cees Pijs, a program manager at Valid, an IT services provider in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

CON Added Liability Just because a project manager retains the services of an SME doesn't lessen his or her burden of responsibility. In fact, an SME can add to a project manager's overall liability on a project.

"The SMEs that I work with on my team are responsible for their work, but ultimately, I'm responsible for delivering the project; for the triple constraint of time, budget, quality and scope; and for making sure the project is a success," says Mr. Gorcey. "To be successM, you have to let go and let the SME do his or her work." Giving an outsider that kind of freedom can be a scary proposition. if the SME fails, it's left to the project manager to dean up the mess-or take the fall.

CON Personality Clash Bringing in an SME can create interpersonal conflicts, particularly when the SME is an external contractor. After all, team members aren't likely to appreciate taking direction and orders from an outsider without good çeason. As a project management consultant in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, Richard Bollinger, PMP, knows that reality all too well.

He says uncomfortable moments can result if team members are reluctant to let SMEs do their job. "I've been on projects where there was somebody who didn't know what they were talking about," Mr. Bollinger says. "I had to confront that person and make sure they stood out of the way." "A project manager always has to be mindful of human resources issues and make sure people understand what they're being used for and what their field of expertise is," Mr. Gorcey says. He suggests project managers sit down with team members to define distinct roles and responsibilities before bringing an SME on board.

CON Knowledge Gaps SMEs are generally temporary participants in a project, and the issues they're brought in to address may come up again after they're gone if project managers fail to properly transfer knowledge from an SME to team members. These knowledge gaps can easily talee a project off course, leading to unnecessary delays and added costs, Mr. Pijs says.

To ensure proper knowledge transfer, Mr. Gorcey carefully documents project deliverables with as much detail as possible. This way, "the team takes ownership and is answerable to what was delivered after an SME moves on," he says.

When project managers consider incorporating SMEs on their project teams - whether for technical expertise, keen market awareness or knowledge of the business - they must remember it's not sufficient to sit back and watch the pieces fall into place. Radier, it's up to them to maximize the pros and minimize the cons to achieve the best possible result.

"We can goto an SME and say 'Here's what we're thinking of doing, 'arid they can say right off why it may or may not work." -Marc Garcey, PMP, CGI, Toronto, Ontario, Canada "An SME can absorb the tasks that float within the scope of his or her expertise, such as finance or risk management." - Guarav Chauhan, PMP, Haryana, India (c) 2012 Project Management Institute

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