A subject matter expert or SME is an expert or authority in their field.
In the organizational context, a subject matter expert is an authority on a specific area, practice, process, hardware, software, or technology.
An organization with multiple divisions and departments can have several subject matter experts within each division and department.
Examples of Subject Matter Experts
Here are some examples of subject matter experts in different industries and commercial sectors:
- Law: A firm lawyer specializing in bankruptcies is a subject matter expert. As per standard practice, law firms have lawyers who specialize in different areas of law and are therefore subject matter experts.
- IT: An engineer with expertise in the installation of a particular operating system on different types of hardware
- Manufacturing: Skilled machine operators with hands-on experience in a particular manufacturing process
- Leadership: An industry veteran with decades of experience who helps companies implement growth strategies
- SEO: A consultant who helps companies improve their website search ranking
Some individuals in organizations do not have a specific title or position but are recognized as subject matter experts because of their experience and expertise.
There are also individuals with titles and positions who are designated as subject matter experts. Examples include:
- Chief Data Scientist
- Chief Engineer
- Chief Financial Officer
- Technology Specialist
- Investment Consultant
- Manufacturing Advisor
Subject Matter Expert Responsibilities
Subject matter experts carry out several critical functions for organizations.
The main function of a subject matter expert in any organization is to promote efficiency.
Let's take the example of an employee who needs the answer to a question or to understand a difficult or complex concept.
One approach the employee can take is to keep trying until they find the answer or develops the needed understanding. This approach does not guarantee the desired result. Even if it succeeds, this approach can consume a significant amount of time.
As the saying goes, you do not need to reinvent the wheel.
Rather than working hard, the employee can work smart: the employee can consult a subject matter expert. In doing so, the employee will not only get the answer and/or understanding that he or she needs, but the employee will also learn about many other relevant aspects of the matter. This second approach has a higher probability of success and requires less effort and less time.
Subject matter experts can analyze issues and data at a level made possible only by combining their education, experience, and training. Their analysis helps organizations unearth risks, opportunities, inefficiencies, weaknesses, and strengths. Based on this analysis, organizations can improve their strategies and business processes.
In this age of big data, many people might conclude that computer programs can analyze data better than humans can. There is no doubt that machines can handle much larger data sets than humans can. However, humans i.e. subject matter experts design the machines and the algorithms they run on. And only subject matter experts can figure out if a machine is working as it is supposed to or is generating erroneous output due to a misconfiguration or other problem.
Subject matter experts work with technical writers to create complex documentation for projects and products.
Subject matter experts are experts in their field. However, they might lack the skills required for communicating with non-technical audiences. Subject matter experts can also lack the skills to work with sophisticated documentation tools and processes.
This is where technical writers come in: they conduct detailed subject matter expert interviews to learn and understand the topics in question and determine what information is relevant and what is not.
Technical writers then create documentation that is easy for all audiences to understand. The subject matter experts then review and edit the documentation.
Subject matter experts communicate relevant specialist knowledge to lay audiences and non-specialists. They serve as guides and mentors for individuals and teams that need their support.
Subject matter experts also communicate relevant knowledge in an accessible way to people higher up in the organizational hierarchy. The CEO, CFO, and board members are skilled in matters of business and might find it hard to understand technical concepts and the relevance of technical concepts for business and growth. Subject matter experts educate these business experts, answer their queries, and clarify their doubts.
Develop Expert Recommendations
Subject matter experts can provide organizations with specific and actionable recommendations to improve their business strategies, processes, and models.
Depending on the organization’s goals, an individual subject matter expert or a team of subject matter experts can make recommendations based on their specialized knowledge.
Subject Matter Expert Traits
The following are some of the traits of great subject matter experts:
In some areas, expertise is impossible without breadth and depth of theoretical knowledge. This is especially true for specialized and research-driven industries. That is why subject matter experts often have a formal academic degree.
For example, industries dealing in the development of hazardous chemicals need experts who know how to manufacture, store and transport such dangerous chemicals. For such industries, a Ph.D. in Chemistry is required to understand the processes required for the development, safe storage, and transport of hazardous chemicals.
Academic education is not a prerequisite for expertise. Especially in information technology (IT), professionals can become subject matter experts without a four-year degree. Relevant certifications and some years of experience give IT professionals the knowledge and skills needed to become subject matter experts.
Subject matter expertise is often a product of experience rather than formal education.
The business world is focused on results. Any person who works hard can learn through on-the-job experience and training. Over time, such a person can acquire relevant experience that is of value to a business. This value is due to the acquired ability of the person to get things done. In contrast, an individual with many degrees might not be able to deliver because the individual knows a lot of theory but possesses no skills.
That is why most industries will recognize the expertise of someone who has long-term knowledge and skills in a given area.
A curious attitude is essential for all subject matter experts.
Knowledge and information keep increasing. New technologies are created every day. People come up with new ideas every day.
An expert – any expert – cannot remain an expert without a curious attitude. Curiosity is the fuel that pushes experts to learn, to find new ways of thinking, to improve existing methods, in other words, to improve.
An organization cannot benefit from a subject matter expert who works in isolation. An organization can only benefit from a subject matter expert who has a cooperative attitude and is willing to help anyone who needs their advice and expertise.
Subject Matter Expert Skills
The most important skills for subject matter experts are teamwork, communication, and knowledge management.
Organizations are complex entities. An individual working alone cannot accomplish anything significant in any organization. Only teams working together can achieve great success.
That is why teamwork is the most important organizational skill.
Great subject matter experts are great at teamwork: they work with many people throughout the business and collaborate with teams and individuals who need their advice and support for projects and tasks.
Communication is one of the most important skills for any employee, regardless of position and work domain.
Subject matter experts have to communicate on a regular basis with team members, project teams, sales teams, and key stakeholders.
Good communication skills are essential for subject matter experts. They need excellent written and verbal communication skills and expertise in the use of a variety of communications vehicles.
Knowing "what" to communicate and "how" to communicate are both essential. The "what" pertains to the idea or information that one has to communicate. A person cannot communicate effectively until the "what" is clear. The "how" pertains to the best way of getting the idea across and varies with the context:
- The best way to communicate with different individuals varies: how an expert communicates with an entry-level employee is different from how the expert communicates with a director or the CEO.
- The best way to communicate with different groups also varies depending upon the audience's interests, level of understanding, and attitudes.
Organizations use different tools for communication, such as e-mail, videoconferencing, and other business communication platforms. Knowing the limits of each tool and using it accordingly is also essential.
Organizations have their own dynamics. The best way to communicate in an organization can only be learned after working in an organization i.e. it comes with experience. That is why experience, and not only in the technical aspects of the job, is essential for subject matter experts.
The definition of knowledge management includes three types of knowledge:
- Tacit Knowledge: Knowledge acquired through experience, whether it is personal or professional experience
- Implicit Knowledge: The embedded knowledge that one is aware of but which is not documented
- Explicit Knowledge: The knowledge that one is aware of and which is documented
Even though subject matter experts can have a significant amount of knowledge and expertise, they cannot remember every single piece of information that they will ever need. In addition, information will be difficult to locate if it is scattered among documents, emails, and notes.
Therefore, subject matter experts need to use knowledge management principles to protect knowledge – whether tacit, implicit, or explicit – so that they can access and share it when needed.
How to Become a Subject Matter Expert?
You can follow these steps to become a subject matter expert:
Choose a Specialty
The first step is to select your area or niche. The selection can be based on personal interest, market demands, or other factors.
It is best not to make the selection because of an impulse. If you want to become a subject matter expert in an area, then you must be sure that your area will stay relevant in the long term or that you can use the expertise in that area to transition to a more lucrative area or niche later on.
The best way to develop this long-term perspective is to consult with people who have experience and can guide you.
After selecting your area or niche, the next step is to gain knowledge in that area or niche.
Depending on your selection, you can choose a college degree, certifications, or a combination of both.
Degrees offer several benefits and have a few drawbacks. The benefits of college degrees include market value, credibility, and breadth and depth of theoretical knowledge. The drawbacks of college degrees are high costs and long durations.
Certifications offer focused education in a particular area, are economical, and take from a few days to a few months to complete. However, certifications lack the credibility and market value of college degrees.
Again, it is best to consult more experienced persons before deciding your line of action.
It is almost impossible to become a subject matter expert without relevant experience.
The environment you work in, and the people you work with can make the difference between success and failure. An ideal environment is a cooperative environment where you can ask questions without fear, where people generally want to help, and where you have mentors who guide you.
Again, when deciding where to work and gain experience, consulting with more experienced people is best.
Seek Opportunities for Continuing Education and Training
Once you have knowledge and experience in your chosen area, it is best to continue looking for education and training opportunities. Continuous learning and upskilling are essential if you want to keep up with the fast pace of innovation and change.
There was a time when one person was able to do many things.
However, this is the age of expertise. For this reason, organizations in the modern economy place a high value on subject matter experts.
Subject matter experts are the go-to people in modern organizations. Whenever an individual or a team has a question, is stuck with a complex issue, or needs expert advice, they consult with unofficial or official subject matter experts.
Subject matter experts are respected, valued by the companies they work for, and well-compensated.
You can also become a subject matter expert through dedication and hard work.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He had his first job in technical writing for a video editing software company in 2014. Since then, he has written several books on software documentation, personal branding, and computer hacking. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.