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ASTC Insights 


Working with Subject Matter Experts

​Collaboration is not always an easy process

As technical writers, the finished product we deliver is dependent on the material and inputs we receive as source material. What can you do when the required Subject Matter Experts (SME) are reluctant to collaborate?

By Jason Xiros

In today's fast-paced and agile-driven world, it can be very difficult to obtain all the information required to complete the requested documentation.

When joining a new project, I try reach out to the different SMEs and understand how they like to work and communicate. There are so many channels available today:

  • do they prefer quick text chats?

  • formal emails?

  • meetings dropped into their calendars?

  • shared docs tagged with the areas they need to address?

Do the most you can to accommodate their preferences. Reduce the friction, and you invariably improve the speed and/or quality of the response.

I also search out any existing material; such as old manuals, product demos, and so on. Walking into a meeting with a degree of background knowledge earns you some respect from the SME, and will often open a broader exchange compared to going in "cold"

Pathways of escalation

If your initial outreach is failing to produce results, it's time to escalate. I have found a subtle bribe by way of coffee or lunch often gets things moving.

Failing that, peer pressure works wonders. Raise the documentation blockers with the SME when you have witness. Informally first (i.e.: "around the water cooler") then formally in a project meeting or stand-up.

On the rare occasions when I've encountered SMEs who simply won't cooperate, I go to their manager and say something like: "...I've tried to get info on XYZ from Joe several times now but he seems to be too busy. Who else on your team can I talk to? The deliverable is due on X date for Y customer..."

Of course, I have my fully documented paper trail (e-mail, Jira, Confluence) to show all this. I don't make accusations, and I don't place blame; I just present the problem (Joe seems to be incredibly busy) and propose my solution (give me someone else to talk to)

A good manager will understand what I'm saying even though I'm not saying it, and go and impress upon Joe the importance of cooperating with me and why.

I think that some people simply forget that there is a customer at the other end of the products they make, and need to be reminded of that from time to time. Documentation is critical to empowering the customer to successfully (and safely) use a product.

Sometimes things do fall in your favour

On the other hand, I once worked with a client where management prioritised the documentation. I asked for (and was granted!) release authority... that meant I could block delivery if the docs weren't ready.

That made the devs very friendly.

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It's frustrating when SMEs don't provide the information, but worse when they do and then don't approve the final work. Although final payment is due on the provision of first drafts, clients sometimes don't come back with their revisions after many reminders over many months. Yes, I have the money but nothing to show in my portfolio. I guess I can cry all the way to the bank, but it's very annoying to think the client might feel I haven't delivered when they're the ones who haven't done what they agreed to do.


Wonderful number of suggestions Jason. I started writing about this problem back in 1983 or thereabouts and never got close to solving it. A TW colleague used Minties as a bribe. In the end she deduced that SEO's started seeing a Minty left on a desk with a note for a get together was a threat rather than an inducement. It worked for her. The project was the installation (and operation) of parking meters. Surely a project with a deadline.

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