When you are paying 3rd party consultants to act as technical subject matter experts (SMEs) for your business are you really getting value for your money?
This topic is a bit of a minefield and I’ve been on both sides of the fence both being contracted out as an SME and also working on projects with third party SMEs.
There are two sides to this discussion that I’d like to talk about:
1. Hiring a third party SME when you have in house IT technicians who could do the work but are unavailable as you lack the free IT team resources.
2. Hiring a third party SME to fill a technical knowledge gap in your IT Team but rather than getting a real expert you are supplied with someone who knows has only a partial knowledge of the specialist area you need an expert in.
Are you paying for SMEs because of a lack of free IT resource?
Hiring SMEs because your existing in-house IT resources are too busy is sometimes a valid use of your budget, usually as a short term fix. However, consider that you have an IT project coming up and technically competent IT staff already in your organisation who are perceived as either too busy or too valuable in their existing role to move (even temporarily) to the role you would hire the SME for. Most IT environments will have one or two individuals who are just so good at what they do you know that you can’t replace them. They seem to have every bit of your IT infrastructure programmed into their brains. I bet you can picture them already – they’re the ones who seem to take everything in their stride and will always rise to the occasion. That’s great and you are lucky to have them. Now consider their view on that SME you just hired.
From your in-house techs view you just hired someone expensive to do a project that they would love to do. It’s not unusual for that SME to be earning a day rate that is double (or more) what your in house techs are earning. It’s unlikely that the SME will know your business and infrastructure anything like a well as your in-house techs.
You could be shooting yourself in the foot on two levels here; firstly you’ve upset one of your most valuable techs by giving them the perception that they are undervalued and secondly you’ve also watered down their skills development by not letting them work on the new project.
Instead of the above you could try hiring some lower tier IT contractor or even a cheap full time assistant for your in-house techs to free them up for the more rewarding projects. There’s a good chance you can get a generalist in-house resource much cheaper than a SME contractor. You don’t even need to free your in house resources up completely to focus on the new project.
Imagine that rather than hiring the SME above, you talk to your in-house techs and tell them you are going to bring in some external help to lighten up their workload so they can focus more time on more interesting projects. They may have to spend some time getting the new recruits up to speed but now it is in their own interest to do so. In this situation I don’t think they would be unhappy to occasionally help out in their previous capacity if the need arises.
If you are really lucky you can build a long term relationship with a generalist IT contractor who you can call upon whenever the need arises to release an internal resource for a project. By following this plan you create a happier and more skilled in-house team.
Are you paying for an SME who is really an expert?
I’ve worked with some SMEs who have truly blown me away with their detailed subject matter knowledge. I’ve also worked with, so called, SMEs who’s expert knowledge proved to be seriously lacking.
I’ve also been supplied to a customer as a third party contractor to work on a project that required knowledge that wasn’t a part of my core skills. It’s a tricky situation and I can see both sides of the argument.
From my experience, and as mentioned above, the requirements for an SME (especially in small and medium businesses) are often based less on the expert knowledge required and more on the need for an IT resource and any old IT resource is acceptable.
In other instances the enterprise requiring the SME has so little technical knowledge that they can not even tell if their SME is an expert. This has led to a market place where the quality level of SMEs expert knowledge can vary greatly. On occasion I’ve worked with SMEs who genuinely knew their stuff and they were a pleasure to work with. On other occasions I’ve worked with SMEs who I had to train on basic principles of their area of expertise.
I think the problem here is that good SMEs are expensive to employ. A good SME probably focusses on only one or two technical competencies to get really good at them. However, the less technical competencies an SME has the harder it is to find them a project that requires their narrow band of skills and place them for work (assuming there isn’t a shortage of their expertise in the market). So these good SMEs may be required to work on projects that call on their secondary or tertiary skills and, in my experience, the SMEs don’t like this and will seek employment elsewhere where they believe their primary skills will be called on more often.
For the employers or agents selling on SMEs it makes sense to employ more generalists who can be placed more readily even if they are less highly skilled. If a customer wants a storage specialist, then a generalist who knows a bit about the required storage architecture will probably do the job 90% of the time.
And here’s the main cause of the problems above – agencies usually get away with supplying less than expert SMEs because either the end customer lacks the knowledge to realise or for various reasons (contracts, politics, economic or legal reasons) the customers feel they have no route to complain and gain recompense.
If you are lucky your SMEs will be experts and will add serious value to your projects.
However, in larger enterprises long term contract restrictions or the perception of too much red tape prevents end customers from making a fuss if their SME is sub par. In smaller enterprises lack of IT resources means any old IT resource seems to do the trick or else the lack of local IT knowledge allows sub par SMEs to thrive.
Ultimately I believe the responsibility relies on the relationship between the agencies supplying SMEs to be more open and honest on the expertise levels of their SMEs but also on the end customers ability to feedback to the agencies on the real value for money that the SMEs provide.