Now For Something Completely Different: “SMEAC”

(What the heck is he talking about now? Excuse me, where is the emergency exit!) I would venture a guess that maybe one to two percent of the subscribers to ERE have ever even heard of SMEAC. Those that have, let me assure you, had a wry smile and a pleasant memory recalling this simple and yet effective communications and decision-making tool and where and when they learned it. The good news for the rest is that SMEAC is compatible with all PCs and Macs, interfaces with all releases of all software, does not require special hardware or drivers or external devices, can be uploaded, downloaded, used in your office, remotely, or on the road, is totally hands free, uses no power, and requires no technical ability and minimal training. But best of all, it is free! What is so important about decision-making and communications in an HR/Staffing column? Why not just focus on those issues that pertain exclusively to HR/Staffing? Why not just discuss job board position descriptions, HRIS, and automated pre-screening? Well, because we work for and support people who are not just HR/Staffing focus or involved. We are responsible for making decisions that affect those people’s professional and, to some extent, personal lives. Communication is the core of our existence, it is the reason for our being, it is how we tell superiors, subordinates, peers, candidates, clients, hiring managers and vendors what we are going to do and how we are going to do it and why we decided to do it in the first place! However, if you were to ask people, inside and outside HR/Staffing, what the greatest difficulties they face in day-to-day business operations are, they would most likely mention disseminating, accurately, those decisions, practices and policies they manage and over-see to those whom they work for or support. Put more simply, “Getting the word out, correctly.” Well, nowhere is ” getting the word right” more important than in the armed services in general and the Marine Corps in particular. If you fail to communicate properly, if people fail to listen properly, even in peacetime training, people can die. So insuring accurate and timely two-way communications is a critical issue. Hence the creation of SMEAC. The Marines faced a conflict in how, on the one hand, to unify the decision making, communication, and dissemination process without, on the other hand, discouraging each person involved from using their own unique leadership and communication style. The Marines, unlike many civilian corporate cultures, actually encourages and recognizes the need and advantages of allowing their junior leaders to use their personal leadership style. (Surprised? Not me. I honestly felt that while I was in the USMC I had more personal leverage as a junior officer than I ever had in the corporate world as a manager.) Therein lies one of the governing principles of SMEAC: allow freedom of interpretation, solutions planning, and expression without allowing someone to go off the “deep end” and confuse their audience with disjointed and disconnected rambling. SMEAC assumes that truly effective communications, no matter how well structured and well though out in the “transmission,” fail if not “received” correctly and accurately by the intended audience. Effective communications requires, as a prerequisite, a planned transmission based on the way the audience has been trained to expect to receive information. Think of the time you bought a new printer, and lost the CD with the driver downloads. The printer was “talking” intelligently, and the computer was “listening” intelligently, but since neither understood how each other was “structuring the moment,” no communications occurred. SMEAC structures not only how you reason out a problem, it also structures how you communicate it and it also structures how your subordinates or audience listens and how they in turn will repeat the process themselves with those whom they communicate with. It is, in essence, a universal driver. (I’ll “drop the shoe” in a minute and explain SMEAC, but a little more justification first.) How often have you ended a meeting issuing new instructions or information, knowing that:

  1. You doubt the importance of the message was delivered evenly to all attendees
  2. The endless questions would begin within the hour, many of them repetitions
  3. Many available resources would not be used by some members of your team while others would attempt to exhaust resources
  4. The dissemination of the message would vary as much as 180 degrees from group to group
  5. It is doubtful that your requests for information would be met uniformly, correctly, or on time.
  6. Many would communicate to the wrong people for the correct information, or visa versa.

Try SMEAC (here it is, finally explained):

  • Situation. A discussion of the overall situation with the intention of making your team aware of the importance of the task to be assigned and where that task figures into the overall goals of the organization. This is where the first level of importance and urgency can be introduced and re-enforced. In other words, this is where you get your team’s attention. (“Our division is doing well, but do not get too complacent, corporate earnings are down and it always flows down hill. Here is what that might mean to us…”)
  • Mission. Within that stated situation, the mission specific to your team and any other similar actions, projects, or activities occurring within the total organization that will compliment, parallel, or “carry on” where your team leaves off. It gives the team an understanding of their place within the organizational structure. (“While we are investigating better use of existing staffing resources and justifying continued staffing efforts the other groups are looking into new revenue avenues, new product lines, and new markets.”)
  • Execution. The actual breakdown of assignments and tasks to be given to members of your team, each person being addressed one at a time to insure each person clearly understands “their piece” of the plan and the mission. Each member of the team also hears the execution plan for the rest of the team, clearly delineated, which eliminates duplication of effort, territorial incursions, and better shared resources and information. This helps develop the sense of team as all the “execution pieces” combined should resolve the issue posed by the “mission.” (Dave’s group will look into justifying existing new open requisitions, not replacement requisitions. That is another part of the project.”)
  • Administration and logistics. Internal and external support, resources, personnel, other groups or teams available for assisting in this project. (“We are pretty much on our own, however, Finance will be supplying us with financial spreadsheets and Marketing will be providing sales projections to use in conjunction with our cost analysis and justification. I will make my administrative assistant available to assist any of you unfamiliar with Excel to develop the planning spreadsheet. We will all use the same format”)
  • Communications. How you want the issues within the project team communicated, by what means, and how frequently. This includes deadlines, meetings, process of problem resolution and so forth. In addition, who should not have communications regarding this project. (“We do not want a rumor mill going around the division, hear is the departmental list of people “in the know” that you can communicate with, and no one else!”)
  • Questions (the “Q” is silent). Finally and only at the end, ask for questions. All too often we like to say, “Do not hesitate to ask questions during the meeting.” Sounds good, makes us feel democratic, but consider this: your team listens based on their own internal prioritization process. If I am busy taking notes about what you just said, I am not listening to other peoples questions. I will most likely later ask the same questions. Or not realize a good issue was brought up. You also risk interrupting the even information flow and accurate transference by answering a question out of context or one that would be resolved later in the discussion. This practice can make people confused, and it also makes you appear redundant, which causes people to stop listening. In addition, the ability for people to ask “dumb questions” because they have not waited to hear “all the information” before forming their questions is astounding. (I am sorry, I disagree with the old clich?’ “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” I have heard thousands in my career. Usually the result of a “Q&A free for all” initiated by a manager NOT SAYING, “Hold all questions till the end please.”) If your team understands SMEAC, they realize that you will discuss “resources” during the “Administrative and Logistics” phase of SMEAC and know to wait till then. “Dave” will not feel compelled to query why “Jane” is responsible for executing one piece of the process if he knows his piece of the process is coming up next. SMEAC makes the person comfortable during the meeting, because like an agenda, they know what to expect next. Suspense and mystery might contribute to making a great Hitchcock movie, but it is a lousy way to run an effective and informational meeting.

So that’s SMEAC. Yeah, I know, so what! It is just a simple five-part process; it is too simple to be useful, right? Wrong! Who taught you that effective means complicated, or useful mean expensive? Nothing we do will ever reach its full capacity if we continue to fail to effectively make decisions, and communicate them evenly. No automated tool can ever elevate us above our own effectiveness: Gaffey’s Law of Effectiveness: If you are 80% effective as a communicator and use a 90% effective automated process tool, your maximum obtainable over-all effectiveness is never greater than 72%. In other words, your best effort is doomed to a C-. During a project for a client, based on my observations of the team’s interactions, one of my recommendations to the VP of Human Resources was to consider using the concept of SMEAC within her group and their respective teams to improve the daily processing of information and disseminating of information. An idea that was not too well received, I am sorry to report. I was told that something as simple as SMEAC was hardly a solution to such a complex issue as effective communications. It was also difficult for this VP to believe that in a world of four-, five-, and six-digit solutions, that anything offered for free could not possibly work. (Especially from a consultant!) Finally, I was reminded that this particular “high tech” corporation was not the “Marines,” and college-educated business professionals did not need something that was designed for people with lesser educations. (I did not bother to mention that 95% of all company grade officers have a bachelor’s degree, that 50% of all field grade officers have their masters and a higher percentage of general officers have their PhDs than their civilian business community counterparts.) The next week I attended the routine staff meeting and heard the request that all HR/Staffing representatives go to their respective groups to insure that the various line managers had “emergency contact” files for all employees and that these files were up to date. In addition, due to the concern for employees’ spouses and families, HR was to verify accuracy and then maintain copies as backup. The reason for this effort was the result of an employee who was suddenly taken ill at work and significant time was lost informing the spouse due to bad data poorly maintained by the employee’s line manager. I waited a week and went into “the trenches” to quiz employees on their understanding of the task as explained to them by the VP’s HR/Staffing team, its importance, its motivation. Some of the feedback I got was:

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  • Some idiot in HR lost all our files.
  • In case of a RIF, they want to make sure they can call next of kin to pick up employees without cars.
  • Another pain in the neck HR exercise in making work for other people.
  • Why don’t they have a list of their own?
  • Huh?
  • What list? Am I on some list? What does that mean? Nobody told me about any list? You know, I never get the same attention as all the other people here……
  • I heard about it, I did not bother to check my information – who cares. I just hit reply and said, “Yeah, that’s alright. My family knows how to reach me.”

I then reintroduced implementing SMEAC with the vice president of human resources. Based on the “quotes” I gave her, and the daily dose of questions and inquiries and complaints she was receiving, it was obvious that the effort was a failure, that this rather routine request was not being handled effectively. The concern now was, if the team was messing up a task as simple as telling employees, “We care about you and want to protect you and your loved ones in case of an emergency,” what kind of trouble were they in disseminating and communicating important and more complicated issues? We used the same issue and introduced the SMEAC process. The following week “the trenches” had responded via the chain of command and were universally impressed that HR/Staffing was taking charge of an issue that could impact their loved ones piece of mind. (Well, to tell the truth, minus the usual 10% that hates everything. SMEAC is a tool, not a magic wand!) The only difference was everyone in the process had a unified view based on a well throughout communication process. In the news business they refer to the “Five Ws” all stories must contain;

  1. Who
  2. What
  3. When
  4. Where
  5. Why

That’s Clark Kent’s version of SMEAC. Plus, SMEAC is a great training tool for senior managers to “drill” their staff on thinking on their feet in difficult situations. (Next article will be some of those drills.) At staff meetings, outline a problem in SMEAC format, give your team 10 minutes to respond to your problem simulation using the SMEAC format to communicate it to the team. Sit in on your team’s meeting with their subordinates and listen to their SMEAC version of your SMEAC. It will serve to teach you not only their effectiveness as a communicator, but your strengths and weaknesses as well. We often confuse “communications” with “speaking while other people listen.” The general consensus is, “If what I said made sense (to me), then nobody should have trouble understanding what I meant.” What we do not realize is not that we all do not speak in the same manner or style, we also do not listen in the same manner. We unknowingly create panic in those we try and teach and elevate. Panic is not fear; rather, it is a natural, normal, and rational response to a situation or set of circumstances for which the person or persons involved is neither pre-warned nor predisposed to understand or deal with effectively. Panic can manifest itself not only as agitated action, but also as apathy, inaction, or inappropriate response. Do not panic your team when you communicate with them. Use SMEAC to create a uniform sense of urgency, purpose, dissemination, and positive direction in your team. Teach them to use SMEAC to do the same for the people with which they communicate, control, or support. Imagine, the comment you made in a meeting Monday is heard, through two, three, or even four layers of dissemination, two days later, to the last person, in the last office, on the bottom floor, behind the boiler, exactly how you meant it to be heard with your sense of importance still intact. Amazing, truly effective communications in the 21st century, which has eluded us despite all the software and hardware tools available to us, finally becomes a reality using an early 20th century tool. Plus, it’s free! Besides, if it is good enough for the Marines… Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey ( is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services ( and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE,, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.


1 Comment on “Now For Something Completely Different: “SMEAC”

  1. “SMEAC” works. After 40 years of business experience, I continue to be amazed that we haven’t reduced communications to “SMEAC.”

    In addition to Ken’s “five,” let’s call it the “Six Honest Serving Men….who, where, what, how, when and why.” Use these six. You’ll be pleased with the results.

    You can read the original article at:

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