Setting the Table for Success, Part 2: Forming Winning SME-Writer Relationships

©2015 Mark Henderson

As we discussed in the first installment, there are some things we can do to “set the table for the success” for your subject matter expert (SME)-technical writer team. Part I addressed what should be (but, unfortunately is not) simple and blatantly obvious. In this second and final paper, I want to discuss some specifics I’ve picked up over the many years about the many industries and businesses, and the many SMEs that make for efficient, productive SME-writer teams:

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1)   It’s all about the people. Pick the right dude(s)/dudettes to be your SME(s).

I heard this from an anonymous runner after the Little Rock Marathon as finishers herded through a tunnel underneath the actual finish line:  This senior runner exclaimed in a boisterous voice, “It’s all about the people, baby! It’s all about the people!”

He’s spot-on, you know. It is all about the people. Hopefully, you’ve already contracted the best candidate for your project technical writer. Now you need to avail people who really know their portion of the project—really know it. And as I said, you need to avail them. Adding another task to an already oversubscribed person makes for bad mojo, man. And, it will affect the project deliverables, at minimum schedule and hours.

2)   It’s not about seniority or rank. Pick the right dude(s)/dudettes as your SME(s).

This seems repetitive to #1, or at least a sub-variant. But, it happens often enough that I thought I should call it out. I have worked for several clients whose SME was asking techs how they did this or that. Now, I’m not at all above asking questions—that’s integral to how I make a living! I’m just suggesting that if you’re developing a procedure for a specific process, such as changing out thermocouples or overhauling a valve, avail the tech who routinely performs that task to be the SME for that procedure.

I recently read an autobiography, Rebel Private:  Front & Rear! It’s the story of a young man from Liberty County, Texas, who joined the Confederate Army early in the American Civil War in and fought the entire war as a private, and returned to Texas after Lee’s surrender. It’s a fantastic historical account of the American Civil War through the eyes of a private. At one point, he was routinely reporting directly to General “Stonewall” Jackson during the heat of maneuvers and battles in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Gen. Jackson made decisions that affected the lives of his men, the outcomes of battles, and even the war based on the reports of this private! The takeaway for us is that if Gen. Stonewall Jackson found the guy whose competence he could trust—some country boy private from East Texas—then we need to trust the right competent person to be the SME for whatever we’re trying to capture or document.

3)   Set the bar for the SME(s). Ensure that the SME understands the value of this effort to the mission of the organization.

This is another one of those “obvious” ones, but I’ve worked with a few SMEs who thought the process of capturing what they did day-in and day-out was stupid, or a colossal waste of time. It’s most likely a symptom of thrusting the job/SME title on them without getting their buy-in; but, the net effects, generally, are hits to production schedule (i.e. delays) and extra hours (i.e. cost). However, a bad start can also affect the technical quality or validity of the document(s), and will likely carry over into their limited usage and net value.

4)   Make the SME accessible. In other words, ensure that the writer has access—physical, email/phone—to the SME and vice versa.

What I’ve found is that oftentimes, working around the plant or shop is so commonplace for the clients, they sometimes forget to take the steps to make their SME accessible. For example, are there hours of operation when the writer cannot get to or through to the SME? Does the writer have the proper access? Does the SME need to come get the writer to escort him/her around the job site? Sure, some of these things are biggies and most writers and clients hammer that stuff out in the project contract. However, I have had too much downtime in my career not knowing if I could enter a certain place, or wandering around looking for my SME, or waiting on a response from the SME critical to the document’s development and validation.

For example, I was trying to wrap up a project to deliver a client’s 40 or 50 already developed procedures. The final step on the milestone schedule was to conduct a one-day to walk-through for all procedures as a final content validation (i.e. nomenclature callouts, document and tag numbers, photos, etc.); however, I showed up on-time and was locked out of the plant. The client was performing company-sensitive testing, so no contractors were allowed in; and the time to re-open was “any time now”. Meanwhile, the hours ticked by, but I had to wait on-site to complete the contract. Now, I certainly appreciate a client needing to conduct operations critical to their business. But, I also loathe inefficiency, and me being paid to sit on my duff and produce nada makes me cranky. Fortunately, I was blessed with several hours of remote work for another client that I was able to perform in a safe area on-site, therefore avoiding having to bill this client for my downtime, and then completed his project on-schedule when the plant reopened later in the afternoon.

Many times, I have been unable to locate my SME, and even more frequently, have had to “sit on” a document until I could finally get a response from my SME. Holding up production looking for or waiting on SMEs is so commonplace, it’s a joke among technical communicators. And, while completely solving this may be akin to solving world hunger, I think that clients are often oblivious to this phenomenon and how much it costs them in terms of project costs. And in a market characterized by cost-cutting and driving efficiencies, putting some emphasis on this area of your documentation project will invariably yield efficiency and reduce your document project cost. Again, it’s all part of setting the table for success to create a winning SME-writer team.