They’re needed everywhere: Training peers, optimising business plans and literally in the field just doing their work. Yes, we’re talking about subject matter experts.
Not all are created equal, which means it takes a little coaxing to get the benefits you need from them. So, how can organisations effectively identify, utilise and retain their subject matter experts?
What is a subject matter expert?
A subject matter expert (SME) is an individual with a deep understanding and specific knowledge of a particular job role, topic, area or process. Subject matter expertise can be demonstrated through qualifications, licensure or even years of professional experience.
How to identify subject matter experts in your organisation
The depth of an SME’s knowledge is such that they are considered uniquely qualified to provide guidance and strategy regarding their area of specialisation.
This often applies to those who have been in their roles for a long enough period that their knowledge is second nature. While “subject matter expert” might call up images of expert witnesses, the SMEs in your organisation can be found across business areas, from your software development department to the marketing team.
When actively identifying your SMEs, keep a couple of rules of thumb in mind.
- While most leaders are subject matter experts, not all subject matter experts are leaders. Keep an eye on those who balance careers and their own progression with a hands-on approach to guidance, or those considered a source of truth by their peers.
- SMEs are usually hired for their expertise, even if you’re not labelling them as SMEs during recruitment. Consider those promoted based on experience and influence, recruited to train based on expertise, or asked to contribute to projects because they possess all of these qualities.
The former identifier is important because it demonstrates an individual is able to articulate what could be dry or dense information in a way most people can understand. And that’s important because with the current pace of change, subject matter experts are often the people in your organisation who can accurately advise what you need based on their nuanced knowledge of both the business and their field of specialisation.
Setting criteria can make it easier to narrow down subject matter experts. Ask:
- What defines expertise in your organisation?
- What processes do you require ensure SMEs are available when needed?
- How is expertise captured, developed and reviewed over time?
To keep track of your internal SMEs (or potential SMEs), we recommend creating a profile for each that becomes part of a living document (that should be consistently updated). This will help you quickly find the thought leaders you need when you need them.
Internal vs external subject matter experts
Most people think of SMEs as thought leaders, speakers, university professors and esteemed authors—and most of the time, they are. But much like recruitment, looking internally for a subject matter expert will yield a pool that have firsthand knowledge of both the subject matter and how it applies to your organisation.
Consider the legal department. They need to possess highly specialised capabilities, but new graduates may not be well-versed with the legal actions unique to your organisation. This is where an SME can help them meet challenges while giving them key takeaways, helping them solve problems by turning them into learning opportunities.
You may also have SMEs hiding in the shadows. No doubt your managers and leaders will be considered experts in their disciplines, but there are always those in waiting who can bring new perspectives and critical capabilities from prior roles.
Then there’s also the added benefit of saving on fees or stricter time constraints that external SMEs usually have, as well as the trust and confidence you convey when you spotlight internal talent.
Why would you need a subject matter expert?
Subject matter experts are vital to helping understand a topic or solving a problem where general knowledge is insufficient. Let’s break it down again.
- A subject matter expert offers expertise (obviously), experience, and influence (see above).
- They’ll likely have contact with other professionals and specialists, either in their field or adjacent ones, who can offer further expertise.
- They offer a supreme quality of knowledge transfer.
Combined, the level of credibility and competitiveness your organisation gains is invaluable. Which gives you three distinct advantages.
1. Optimised workflows
If you consider that an internal SME is already familiar with organisational processes, then you’ll understand how they can help streamline workflows in a way that achieves business outcomes.
Internal SMEs can occupy anywhere from mid-tier to top floor roles, so they’ll have more nuanced knowledge than most when it comes to the different workflows across your organisation. They’ll also often have worked their way up from entry level, so they have a deep understanding of how their role and team fits into the business, organisational processes, and how environmental changes affect both of the former.
Channels of communication are also strengthened by a subject matter expert’s input. They’ll likely be able to clearly articulate information in a way that improves job performance and processes.
2. Relevant learning content
Provided you give them a solid understanding of learning outcomes, engaging an SME to develop learning content for employee training can boost learner performance and alignment with management goals by 73%. This comes down to an in-depth knowledge of their subject matter, authenticity, and an understanding of the challenges the content is addressing.
It’s important to note that SMEs will seldom have the time to actually flesh out content. Pick their brains but don’t make them the heavy lifters. This’ll also help the team understand how to do things in the future, meaning you won’t need to lean on SMEs for every project.
3. Money & time saved
Looking for SME knowledge externally is often an expensive endeavour. Internal SMEs, on the other hand, are more easily sourced (which equates to less time spent finding them) and often come without the fees external SMEs require for their services (literally saving you money)—meaning you don’t accrue time debt (considering internal SMEs will already be familiar with both the people, challenges and processes in your organisation).
When you’re designing employee training programs like, say, onboarding (which needs to cover a lot of information about different areas) an SME from each function can more accurately and efficiently provide relevant information.
How to get buy-in from your subject matter experts
It’s one thing to highlight the colleague or manager as the subject matter expert you need. Getting them to invest in the project you need them for is a whole other ballpark, least of all because they are likely:
- Already managing their own team and projects
- Therefore, extremely busy
- Not immediately familiar with the people you need them to work with.
Sound a little scary? There are some dos and don’ts when it comes to working with SMEs, but it comes down to clearly defining their role and giving them a reason to contribute.
Involve them from the start
You are just one priority in an SME’s workload. The most efficient use of everyone’s time is therefore to be prepared on the topic they will be advising on; this saves on back-and-forth communication and allows you to set agendas for their time, which only helps them better separate the information that is need-to-know from the nice-to-know.
Demonstrate the value
Failing compensation, the next best incentive when an SME devotes their precious time to a project is credibility and publicity. It’s important to show them both the impact their work will have and the value working on your project can add to their portfolio, especially since not being recognised as an expert is the main reason many SMEs leave an organisation.
Just don’t fall into the trap of SME scenarios that waste their time. This isn’t a job opportunity for them; there will be processes they are not directly involved in, and it wastes time and expertise they could better use elsewhere by dragging them into meetings or tasks they aren’t needed for.
Accept their feedback
Part of an SME’s role is to appraise and critique components relating to their particular area of expertise. If you’re bringing them on because they are experts, don’t get mad if and when they provide feedback. Some may even be hesitant to give unsolicited advice, so ensure you respect and welcome the (highly valuable and informed, let’s not forget) feedback they offer.
Subject matter experts, as the name implies, are an invaluable source of knowledge. You’ll likely have more than you realise in your organisation, it’s just a matter of identifying and nurturing them.
Granted you respect their time and reward their talent, you cna experience business benefits like:
- Optimised or new processes that reduce waste and amplify value
- More meaningful learning and development content and activities
- Better channels for knowledge and learning transfer throughout the workforce.
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