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The Role of a Subject Matter Expert in Organizational Change

It is true, change happens at the individual level, but it requires several people to drive a transformational business change like a shift from in-office to a work-from-home model or from multiple small departmental systems to an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system implementation. One of the critical players in driving change is the subject matter expert (the SME); an individual who possesses deep knowledge or expertise about a particular part of the business or the activity taking place. They arguably play one of the most important roles in driving change for many reasons including:

  1. They are keenly aware of the impacts, challenges and obstacles that will arise as a result of the change because of their role and the expertise they possess;

  2. They are experiencing the change first-hand and;

  3. They are one of the top influencers that will drive the change within the business as they are respected, well-known, and trusted members of the team.

The Value of a Subject Matter Expert

Let’s use an ERP system implementation as an example. For this project, there would likely be multiple SMEs from teams such as human resources, finance, procurement, and warehouse, etc. They’re valued members of the team as they will help direct how the system is developed, ensuring that it meets the needs of their respective teams and streamlines how they work.

For example, the human resources department often uses an ERP system like MS Dynamics for time tracking, payroll, or recruiting and onboarding. To ensure the ERP system works for the HR team, it is critical to include at least one SME from that department so that they can provide guidance on what functions and work processes are required. Implementing a new system without their involvement would not be favourable.

They also support testing and training, and are an avenue to cascade updates and provide feedback from their colleagues back to the project team. Testing often involves many people from a business unit, but prior to various activities, the SME is responsible for taking the lead to ensure the system meets the needs and requirements for the human resources department.

Training is also integral in driving change and a SME who has been involved throughout the entirety of the project, will possess the most knowledge about how the system works for their function. Because of this, they will often be tapped on to lead or support the training with their colleagues and teams.

Multi-way communication is another benefit of involving the SME. Being a part of the business unit, they understand the team dynamics and are able to determine the best timing and channels to communicate important updates. They are also great sounding boards for their teams, and will raise concerns, questions, or share insights back to the project team.

As demonstrated, it’s never a good idea to implement a system that has such an impact on a particular group without the support of an SME. Over time, it will not only impact the bottom-line through delays or rework, but it ultimately will not work for the business area it was intended for.

Why Experiencing the Change Matters

Change happens to everyone within the business, including those that are a part of the project team. In fact, it can often be more challenging for those involved so closely like the SME. Like everyone else, they will experience change at the individual level and will have their own moments where they will feel optimism or despair. If you want a reminder of the different phases of change, check out our change curve graph here.

Having a valued member of the project team who is experiencing these changes first-hand provides insights on challenges and what may be required to get the team on the right path to support and reinforce the change. For example, if they are showing frustrations about the training process, then it would be important to revisit the training with the SME to ensure that it is effective, or to check if they need any additional support.

On the flip side, when they are feeling excitement or accepting the change, this is equally as valuable because it creates opportunities for the project team to share successes and celebrate important milestones. Recognizing wins is one of the ways to enable a team to successfully adopt and accept change.

Whatever the case may be, the value of the SME experiencing the change themselves is evident as it will enable the project team to quickly act on and adapt their approach to managing change. It’s important to note that all organizational change management plans are fluid and require continuous attention to ensure the right activities are reaching and engaging the right audience at the right time.

Why Influencing is a Key Driver of Change

The power of influence is one of the top leadership qualities; the ability to motivate and inspire others can effectively drive behavioural change. It’s also important to recognize that the best leaders are not always who you would expect, but instead can be individuals without title. A SME is a great example of this. They are not necessarily in leadership positions, but when selected carefully are able to influence up, down, and across the organization within other business areas.

There are many tactics to influence others during periods of change. In fact, influencing in the right way can help to overcome resistance which can result in the failure of a business transformation. There are several ways to influence which will vary from individual to individual but can include speaking, writing, and networking. SMEs will have their own established ways to influence and will likely have a natural talent for doing so.

Another benefit of their influencing power is that they are also very trusted amongst their peers and colleagues. Trust is very hard to earn and having this trait can move mountains when working through a large business transformation like a system's implementation. As many of us have experienced, IT changes are one of the most difficult business changes to implement because it creates uncertainty about the future. Employees have natural concerns including impacts to roles, questions about job security, and they often feel like they are losing control. Having a trusted colleague that cascades information or listens to concerns, makes a huge difference in addressing these fears and helps to minimize discomforts so that the business can move forward.

SMEs are a critical success factor for a project and are instrumental in driving change because of their expertise, personal change experiences, and influencing power. Ensuring they are included and engaged in the change management activities of a project is important to achieve the desired business outcomes and successfully transform the way people work.



Krista Schaber-Chan

Managing Partner




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