What then is the SME/TW functional relationship?

Subject: What then is the SME/TW functional relationship?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 10:01:19 -0500

Melody Akins responded to Bruce's comments that "I meant: enough knowledge
that you're not not dependent on SMEs to tell you if what you've written is
complete or technically accurate... Conversely, if you are heavily dependent
on SMEs for this information and
make no effort to correct that dependency, that's coasting."

<<Of what use are Subject Matter Experts, then? If a SME is just on the
project as a 'consultant' and has no actual responsibility for the product,
then is the SME to be asked to review the product on 'final approach' only?

I think you're misreading Bruce's meaning here. In most environments,
programmers and other SMEs are so busy with their deadlines that they can't
afford to give you large amounts of time; that means that you have to spend
the time to do as much research as possible yourself. The more you can
confirm yourself, the less you have to ask them. The goal isn't to do away
with the SMEs (tempting though that may be at times), but rather to use
their time judiciously.

Unless you become an SME yourself and give up writing, you're not ever going
to be as expert as they are--unless they're the ones who are doing the
coasting. That's self-evident, because nobody would claim that product
development is so easy you can do it and still have lots of time left over
to write the docs. Technical writers exist (at least in part) because
developers don't have time to hold down two jobs. Of course, many of them
can't write well either, but that's another issue.

So the trick is to strike a balance. Learn enough that you're not always
banging on the SME's door with questions, and that the questions you ask are
intelligent ones. Get enough of the basic facts correct on your own that you
can ask SMEs to focus on the more difficult facts (or the ones there's no
way for you to verify) when you ask for a documentation review. That's
obviously a subjective judgment call, and varies from product to product,
but the basic point should be clear.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

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