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Star-staffing SMEs on Change and Transformation Projects

Smart organizations assure quality results by making sure their change and transformation projects are strategically staffed with star performers. They realize that these projects influence the future for years to come. They are willing to invest the time and effort to make sure the best people are in the right places.

There are many facets to managing change projects, this article addresses project stakeholders, with an emphasis on subject matter experts (SME) and their role.

The Change Project Continuum

All projects that make significant changes to products and processes are change projects. These projects range from ones that improve existing products and processes to those that fundamentally change, transform, the way an organization functions.

The difference between simple change and transformation is like the difference between gradual maturity and the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

The Stakeholders

“Too often, the people side of change is either not addressed or not addressed adequately.”

Stakeholders are “individuals and organizations whose interests may be affected by the program outcomes, either positively or negatively.” They are sponsor(s), members of the steering committee (“board of directors,”), architect(s), SMEs, functional, product, program and project managers, engineers, technologists, facilitators, BAs, operational staff (current and future), regulators, QA, QC, administrative, and more.

While many factors contribute to the success of change projects, stakeholders are the most critical. These are the people who authorize, pay for, plan, implement, benefit from, and live with the results. All stakeholders must understand their roles and the nature of the change – the reason for it, the desired outcome, the plan to achieve it.

Subject Matter Experts (SME)

This article zeroes in on SME’s and the need to make sure their role is well understood. All stakeholders are important. SMEs are singled out because their role is often misunderstood and understaffed or given to less-than-optimal players.

SMEs help to ensure that deliverables meet the needs of stakeholders. In a transformation or major change project there are multiple SMEs with a variety of specialties. They provide detailed information, fact check, assure compliance with regulations, policies, and standards, and promote best practices. Some provide experiential knowledge of the process being changed and its environment.

SMEs possess knowledge. They are influencers, not decision makers. Decisions are made by senior program leadership using information from SMEs, architects, and others.

Technical SMEs

SMEs may be technical or content experts. The work of technical SMEs is focused on technology, legal, regulatory, financial, policy, procedural compliance, and support matters.

The technical SME role is relatively objective, but there are always interpretations. For example, deciding if a design approach complies with regulations and standards depends on an SME’s interpretation of the regulations, their flexibility, and understanding of the design.

As a project or program manager, choosing the right technical SME (if there is a choice) means finding ones who bring options and recommendations to the table rather than making arbitrary decisions.

Because technical SMEs are often working across multiple projects and may have other, operational, responsibilities, make sure their availability is adequate and that you are building SME response time estimates and realistic delays into your schedule.


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Content SMEs

The content SME role is far more subjective. The content SMEs’ role is to provide knowledge of the program’s current and target settings. Working with content experts, business analysts document procedures, operational history, etc. Designers and architects rely on practical feedback regarding the feasibility and potential impact of design elements.


SMEs provide knowledge. There are two types of knowledge, explicit (documented) and tacit (undocumented). Explicit knowledge is easy to acquire. Though it often does not reflect reality.

To obtain tacit knowledge engage subject matter experts to get the pulse of the organization, its nuances, and its staff. As a project manager beware of subject matter experts who:
• think their perception of reality is reality
• have outdated knowledge
• lack a process understanding that considers multiple perspectives
• do not realize that they represent current, and possibly, future stakeholders
• are overburdened with operational work to dedicate adequate time and attention
• do not realize the importance of their role
• Think they are in charge (though there are exceptions).

As an example, some SMEs who are in oversight positions, such as review board members “may sit in judgment … and expect their knowledge to influence content decisions. Their input may be a distraction to the process if they insist on making their influence felt on decisions that the design team and other SMEs are in a better position to make.”


When it comes to getting knowledge that will be used to make decisions, the goal is objectivity. Though there are always personal and organizational biases. Expect subjectivity and work to integrate it into a full decision package.

For example, a very knowledgeable SME who has been part of an organization for decades may be biased towards retaining the status quo, even though the project goal is to radically change it. An SME may not understand the power of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics and dismiss ideas from technical SMEs, designers, and architects. Another SME might be forward looking in terms of applying technology to transform a process, but fails to address the impact on staffing and customer relations.

To promote objectivity make sure the SMEs and other stakeholders understand the need for it, and are willing to take the time and effort to elicit knowledge from stakeholders with multiple perspectives.


Organizational change and transformation programs are investments in the future. They set the stage for years of operation and evolution.

Don’t scrimp on SME staffing. Put “stars” on the project. Be ready to give up key operations and management people to staff the project with SMEs who have the mindset and availability to be effective partners in the change process.

This requires dialogue among program leadership, functional and operational managers, and communication across all stakeholders to ensure that everyone is aware of the need for open-minded objectivity, their role, and how it impacts success.


George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.