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?
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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