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Surfing the SME change (photo by jay holobach, vero beach)

In business we have all been faced with losing our Subject Matter Expert or “Smee”. Planning for single point failures, having a talent bench (succession plan), and investing in training the team are all ways to manage a strong foundation if a SME is required for your business.

But what do you do when it’s the “subject” that changes and not the “expert”? What happens when your business need shifts and the SME is no longer the SME – then what? What if the SME can’t change their spots quick enough and can’t provide the “answers” like they used to – then what? A harder question, what if you are the SME? Let’s look at both scenarios.

Scenario A – When the world changes around your SME
Time to think about hiring for the gap.
The faster you address the need, the quicker you can secure your company’s future success. If you wait too long even a new SME may not be able to fix the gap. Time waits for very few, if any.

Time to look into the organization.
Is there someone that has the mindset, talent, and flexibility to ramp up into the new SME? If you think about it, every SME had to start somewhere due to some circumstance. I think back to my early days in the automotive industry when, as a lowly engineer, I was called upon to explain my team’s Artificial Intelligence project to a VP. I had to step into an uncomfortable SME role. Even though I didn’t “feel” ready, I had to go forward.

Time to secure your business plan.
SMEs not only provide expertise, they do it fast. By recognizing that you might not get the answers at the speed you are used to, you can overcome the lag by adding time -where beneficial- to the schedule or maybe it’s hiring two people where you used to have one, etc. Organizing around the need will allow you time to re-establish the expertise you need. Be careful of getting stuck in the “way we used to do it” paradigm.

Scenario B – When you are the SME who’s world has changed around you
You remember the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

I have a friend in IT. He’s a mainframe programmer who learned early on in his career that he always needed to learn the most recent programming languages to keep his SME-ness intact. He never wanted to be the “old guy” (his words, not mine) in the corner that everyone laughed at because he couldn’t cut code with the “kids” (again, his words, not mine.)

What he found over the last 10 years is that all of his experience is now being recognized because he learned to be flexible, stay curious, and realize nothing stays the same forever. His chosen field, by nature, is a constantly shifting sand of technology. He figured out that if you are constantly learning new things, you most likely can “surf the change wave”.

However, like a wave, change can sometimes overtake you. What then? Embrace it. Fighting it won’t help you or the company. Look for how you can take what you know and contribute to the team’s success. I recently asked my friend – what if there’s a new code that you can’t learn fast enough? He replied, “I could become a project lead in a heartbeat.” In other words, he could take his SMEness and adapt the role. Could you?

In summary, a SME’s role can change due to many factors. What’s important is to realize that just because the “subject matter” may have changed does not mean the SME can’t still offer value.

Be intentional