Do You Need a Subject Matter Expert (SME)?

Author: Brian J. Naveken, Manager of Technology & Technical Sales, TECO

The market is full of engineering companies, equipped with computer programs to assist in the design and modeling of your plant or process. They use the latest software to conduct structural design, assess process flow patterns, determine thermal expansion, and predict energy consumption. Many of these companies have a diverse team that can provide a service for just about any discipline that might exist in a glass plant. But that raises the question, do they have an intimate knowledge of the glass-making process or facilities they are designing?

The same can be said for general contractors and construction companies. The term ‘general contractor’ reinforces this point. General contractors can put together a team of subcontractors and manage those subcontractors, as well as self-perform some aspects of a construction project. They provide cost tracking, scheduling, and reporting. They are likely highly skilled at project management, but do they have the intimate knowledge of how a glass furnace repair, facility or furnace expansion, or a new facility build should be executed? Can they optimize the construction process, identify potential conflicts and interferences, coordinate suppliers and vendors from around the world, and complete the project on time and within budget? Do they have an intimate knowledge of the glass-making process and facilities they are constructing?

What is a Subject Matter Expert (SME)?

Everyone loves having smart friends. They can help you solve problems, find solutions, and improve on your already good ideas. Truth is, everyone can benefit from surrounding themselves with smart people. In industry and construction, those smart friends are generally known as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).

The term Subject Matter Expert has been getting a lot of airplay in recent years. Corporations have their ‘SMEs’; these individuals are the repository of corporate knowledge. They know the details of the process or design; they recall the evolution of procedures; they know the history of how to manufacture, tune, or troubleshoot the processes, products, or equipment. Engineering companies have their ‘design experts’, and consultants are hired for their ‘expertise’, but these are not a substitution for the SMEs of a glass plant.

The Role of the Subject Matter Expert

Figure 1: Characteristics of Subject Matter Experts
Figure 1: Characteristics of Subject Matter Experts

The definition of Subject Matter Experts varies from legal interpretations to descriptions in ‘how to’ guides on becoming a Subject Matter Expert. The following is a general definition:

A subject matter expert has a deep knowledge of a specific process, function, or technology (or, a combination of all three). An SME is considered an authority on a certain topic – not only educated on the subject but can share their knowledge with other interested parties.

Knowing your customer and their needs are critical for any engineering or construction company. Having specific knowledge of both the engineering process and the construction process makes you something of an authority in the world of Design-Build (DB) project execution, particularly as it applies to the glass industry.

The challenge to balance “what you know” with “what you say” in the bidding process is a delicate balance. Both TECO and Dreicor bring their knowledge and experience to bear on every project they conduct, no matter how large or small. But to remain competitive, it is incumbent on the team to propose the best value without exceeding the requirements of the scope of work.

Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) Execution and SMEs in the Glass Industry

IPD is a project delivery methodology that fully integrates project teams in order to take advantage of the knowledge of all team members to maximize the project outcome. IPD is the highest form of collaboration because all three parties (Owner, Architect/Engineer, Constructor) are aligned by a single contract.

In a traditional construction contract, each party seeks to avoid and transfer risk to other parties. The IPD approach employs a different philosophy. All project participants accept and manage risks as a team. All participants share financial risks and rewards using an incentive pool that is based upon measurable project outcomes. Figure 2 shows the differences between various project delivery methods with the one labeled TECO Integrated being an IPD where the architect/engineer and constructor are a combined single entity with a SME (SME’s).

The IPD construction project method is becoming an increasingly popular means of project execution in the glass industry, as many companies have shed internal engineering and project management staff. The benefits realized are directly proportional to the size of the project. Large complex projects will have the highest benefit and low benefits on small and simple projects. Projects that require competitive bidding, like projects that have to go out for three bidders/quotes, can’t use the IPD approach. IPD also does not work unless the participants can change their way of thinking that is inherent in traditional project delivery methods. Each party needs to function as a team that contributes to the success of the whole project.

Figure 2: Project Delivery Methods - (O)wner, (A)rchitect/Engineer, (C)onstructor
Figure 2: Project Delivery Methods - (O)wner, (A)rchitect/Engineer, (C)onstructor

The selection of an architect/engineer and constructor partner cannot be solely based on pricing. For traditional projects, where the project price is developed prior to design, procurement is focused on the tender and evaluation of ‘best’ value or lowest bidder. The owner puts full faith in the contractor to provide a plant that meets the production specifications, often without the benefit of the owner as an SME. By comparison, IPD projects generally benefit from the owner’s involvement during the early stages of the project, resulting in a more refined scope, cost, and schedule before construction commitments are made. The success of the project hinges on the active participation of the owner’s SME.

Procurement based on price (“best value”) can be misleading, and a missed opportunity for the owner. Quality Based Selection (QBS) is an alternative approach. QBS focuses on experience, industry knowledge, past performance, project approach, and other factors not related to price. In short, QBS recognizes and weighs the experience brought to a project by the contractor. Ideally, that experience would meet the definition of an SME.

All this knowledge and experience would appear to be an asset to the customer. Who would not want to have bidders with an intimate knowledge of their process and equipment? But this is where QBS and the best value vendor selection approach depart. The application of knowledge not specifically identified in the tender documents often results in bids that are higher than that of contractors with lesser knowledge and experience. The pricing presented by the SME will generally meet and exceed the requirements of the bid package, and result in a higher bid than the lesser experienced bidder. However, the lesser experienced bidder’s package leads to delays, quality issues and cost over-runs resulting in a higher project cost upon completion and a higher Total Cost of Ownership.


IPD is gaining momentum as a project delivery method that sets out to optimize efficiency and reduce risk while working as a team that shares in financial rewards. Couple IPD with the use of SMEs, where TECO and Dreicor excel, this approach provides the best value and optimum project success. Client expectations are not just met but exceeded.

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