Business process initiatives require a deep understanding of an organization's current processes to document the current state and develop a future state of operations. Process engineers will agree there tends to be a very short timeline to get acquainted with a business' standard operating procedures, technologies involved, and tools used. Rapid and effective approaches need to be utilized to keep the process project on track and to fulfill project goals. The most effective method in understanding a business' current state is to interview Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

SMEs are a core group of individuals who understand how their organization works and are experts on a specific business function/process. Proper interviewing techniques applied before, during, and after the interview will allow you to quickly gather the relevant information needed while simultaneously building strong client relationships.

Prepare for the Interview:

  • Research your SMEs. Leverage your client and professional contacts to identify high performing SMEs who are knowledgeable about a specific process. Conducting up front research on the individuals will point you to the right SMEs.
  • Review background documentation. The interview will be successful if you can intelligently discuss the organization's processes and policies with the SME. Review the organizations' internal websites, document repositories, existing process models, policies and procedures, and conduct high level discussions with project sponsors.
  • Develop draft process models. Develop draft models if your background research yields enough information. By doing this early work, your interview will be highly productive without having multiple back and forth touch points with the SME.
  • Create interview template. Create a template to take notes during the interview, which will be extremely valuable in providing consistency when interviewing multiple SMEs. The template should include 5-10 questions and should be flexible enough to be tailored as needed during interviews.
  • Schedule the interview. Send a brief e-mail describing the project, your role, and why the SME's input is critical. To schedule the interview, send out an e-mail invite with the date, time, location, and purpose of the interview. As a best practice, schedule interviews at least 48 hours in advance to provide enough time for the SME to prepare for the interview. Attach any draft process models for the SME to review ahead of time. Keep in mind that for SMEs – the interview might be extra work on top of their current work load, so please be accommodating to their schedules. Also, keep the interview short – 30 minutes to 1 hour. If you need more information, schedule another time with the SME. For virtual meetings, take a look at our Virtual Meeting Etiquette 101 post.

During the Interview:

  • Provide background and introductions. At the beginning of the interview, introduce yourself and provide the project background. Discuss how long the SME has been with the company, their skills, experiences and knowledge. Ensure the SME understands the organization's sponsorship of the project and its expected benefits; it's particularly helpful if you can explain how the project will positively impact the individual's scope of work. Make the SME feel respected and comfortable so there can be an open dialogue during the interview.
  • Hold individual interviews or group interviews with similar individuals. Interview one-on-one with the SME to provide individual attention. If you need to hold a group interview – make sure the SMEs perform similar work. It can become disruptive having multiple people discussing different efforts.
  • Follow interview template. If your mind draws a blank during the interview, keep going back to the interview template. If possible, include 2 interviewers in the room. You may decide that both interviewers should take notes during the interview and compare after the interview. Or, one person can be dedicated to taking notes while the other facilitates the interview.
  • Ask "The 5 Whys." A great way to fully understand the process the SME is describing is to use "The 5 Whys." A straightforward lean six sigma technique, The 5 Whys means asking "why" at least 5 times during the interview. This will help get you to the bottom of why the organization performs specific functions. Use active listening skills and pay close attention throughout the interview. Ask questions about the specific tasks of how the process is performed, who performs it, metrics, tools used, technologies used, and any dependencies. Check out our Lean and Six Sigma post for more techniques.
  • Keep it focused. If the discussion goes off hand, tell the SME that you will document the idea in a "parking lot" and come back to it at a later time. This way you are acknowledging the SMEs opinion and continuing to build trust while ensuring you don't get sidetracked.
  • Describe process models. If you will be showing draft process models, describe what a model is, what the various shapes represent, and why it is an excellent method to depict processes.
  • Document recommendations. Solicit recommendations for improvement by asking the SME "if you had the opportunity to change something, what would it be?" Eliciting the honest opinions of those closest to the process will provide a good understanding in how to improve the current state of operations.
  • Thank SMEs. Let the SME know that the information you collected will help the organization improve and become successful. Advise of any follow up actions. You may also want to consider sending a follow up e-mail and copying the SME's manager and acknowledging them on their time and dedication.

After the Interview:

  • Document meeting minutes. Immediately document the meeting minutes since they will become a valuable source of project information, and place them on a central project website for easy sharing.
  • Develop process models. Immediately develop draft process models and any accompanying narratives based on the interview notes while the information is fresh in your mind.
  • Validate process models with SMEs. This step is critical to confirm that the information you collected during the interview is accurately depicted in the process models. You can send an e-mail or hold brief in-person validation meetings.
  • Document any parking lot ideas for future phases of projects. Business process projects tend to be multiyear, multi-phased efforts. Keeping an active list of ideas available will help to prioritize future efforts. It is also helpful to document and share lessons learned so that similar, future projects may learn from both your successes and roadblocks.

Conducting SME interviews is essential to all business process efforts, and by preparing ahead of time, building an open environment, and generating trust, you can ensure yours are a valuable use your and the SME's time. While the techniques listed above are a great guideline, they can be tailored to meet your goals/expectations of each individual interview. Happy interviewing!