Subject matter experts are highly sought after by project managers and project teams to provide unique expertise for solving a problem or meeting a technology challenge.
They often act as key advisers because of their deep understanding of a certain topic. This may be an area of knowledge, a process, a system, software or a piece of equipment. The unique perspective of a subject matter expert can inform content within the project, or the execution of the project itself.
The subject matter expert balancing act
A project’s subject matter expert will have spent a lot of time developing their specialisation. Either they’ve worked in a role that has allowed them to gain understanding of the system or topic, or they’ve studied extensively in the area. Inside your company this might be software specialists, technicians or engineers. Outside your company this might be lawyers, accountants or local government representatives.
So what value does a subject matter expert provide?
Their input can often change the scope and direction of a project. They may have an understanding of systems or processes that will alter the approach the team is taking, or they may be able to provide an understanding around limitations of a piece of equipment. Without the specialised knowledge and expertise of the subject matter expert, it could be difficult to know what you are working with.
Where could this be a risk?
It’s important to be aware that your subject matter expert has invested a lot of time working in their speciality area. Whether they are aware of it or not, they have probably formed some strong opinions on it.
For example, a subject matter expert may have specialist knowledge about a certain system your company uses. However, they may be unsure of how this system interacts with newer software, apps or social media sites, and how they can be utilised together to improve the customer experience.
Similarly, while a subject matter expert may know a lot about a specific product, they could be unfamiliar with your audience itself. This would make it difficult for them to understand how the product will be used by this customer demographic.
The takeaway message from this is that if you’re working with a subject matter expert, consider how their potential bias weighs up against the value of the knowledge they’re providing. It’s a balancing act. Don’t take everything they say as the whole truth, but remember that they have unique insights to offer, which can contribute to your project.
Strategies for dealing with potential subject matter expert bias
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re working with a subject matter expert:
1. Stay aware of potential biases
Keep in mind that while you’re dealing with an expert, their particular views on the subject matter may not take into account the relative position of this knowledge in your project. Their research and knowledge should complement that of other experts on the team.
Any bias could also result in the objective of your project being skewed. Don’t allow this to override the purpose and outcome of the project.
2. Have research proofed before it is implemented
While it’s tempting to have subject matter experts heavily involved in the entirety of a project due to their superior knowledge and expertise, it’s a good idea to leave them out of the implementation process if possible. This allows someone else to look over their research and identify any potential bias before it is implemented for the project.
3. Have a number of subject matter experts working together
Another good idea is to engage several subject matter experts to work on the project together. It’s even better if they come from completely different backgrounds, as they will have different opinions. This will mean that several people’s input comes together to produce the final product and the opportunity for individual bias is lessened.
While it may not be possible (or affordable) to find two or three subject matter experts, at least have your expert work closely with other members in the team who can apply their own knowledge and perspective to the project.
Managing subject matter experts and stakeholders is a big part of what a project manager does day-to-day: oftentimes, the most crucial aspects of projects are related to leadership, communication and engagement problems.
One of the best ways you can learn more about how to work with subject matter experts is by completing a project management course online. Southern Cross University offers an online Master of Project Management course, designed to develop your critical thinking and leadership skills.
This article was produced by Southern Cross University in collaboration with ITM Platform.