What Is a Subject Matter Expert?
You have a burning question. You asked your desk-mate, people on your team, and your direct manager. Your question was met with shrugs, hesitation, and a suggestion that you ask a subject matter expert. Maybe they even threw the acronym SME at you.
Whether you’re not sure what a subject matter expert is, curious where you can find them, or you want to become one yourself, here’s everything you need to know about subject matter experts.
A definition of the subject matter expert
Quite simply, a subject matter expert (or SME) is someone who is an authority in a specific field. When you have a question about a topic, you think of them first. For instance, a reporter writing an article about the stock market would probably reach out to a hedge fund manager or an experienced stock broker with their questions. That would make them subject matter experts.
Every organization has its own host of subject matter experts. If you’re in tech, you might have subject matter experts for web-hosting, agile methodology, and more. If there’s a lawyer on your company’s payroll, they’re the subject matter expert for anything legal. And these are just a few examples.
Whoever pops into your mind as the person to ask about a specific topic, they’re probably the subject matter expert for it.
Subject matter expert examples
Curious to know what a subject matter expert might look like in your organization? Since there are a near unlimited amount of topics for people to be experts on, you won’t find them all here. That said, here are some broad categories you can use to recognize them:
- Highly specialized fields: Think of doctors, lawyers, and accountants. These people spent a good amount of time learning a very specific field — which usually has competitive entrance requirements — making them extremely knowledgeable. When you have a question about these fields, you typically go to the people trained in them.
- Technology: This is an especially broad category, and can mean different things for different organizations. In a tech company, most people have some basic tech knowledge, so a subject matter expert would usually be consulted for more niche aspects of tech, such as web-hosting or a specific programming language. Conversely, a company outside the tech field might consider their IT department the subject matter experts on everything related to the technology they use in their daily work.
- Management and strategy: Project and product managers are experts in their own right. Certifications and training exist for management methodologies like Agile, which would make managers with this training subject matter experts. Additionally, people in certain roles can be considered subject matter experts for specific strategies. For instance, a marketer specialized in paid campaign management would be the subject matter expert for everything relating to these campaigns.
- Safety and regulation: This category goes beyond a lawyer’s expertise in legal matters and into the granularity of specific regulations and safety concerns. For instance, who in your company is the go-to resource for health and safety at work? This isn’t often considered important in an office building, but in a warehouse, that person becomes a frequently consulted expert. Other safety and regulation experts can include people who manage first aid training, cybersecurity, and more.
These categories are intentionally broad, and only scratch the surface of who can be considered a subject matter expert. Any topic or area of expertise you can think of has an expert to match, and your organization is likely full of them.
Subject matter expert responsibilities
While a lot of what subject matter experts do essentially becomes “answering questions” it can get a little more complicated than that. Here are just a few ways that SMEs might be asked to contribute their knowledge to the organization at large.
- Help manage resources: Whether they’re an Amazon Web Services expert or a diversity specialist, an SME is the best person to help you determine which initiatives need your precious resources the most.
- Document processes: Documentation can help answer repetitive questions and leave your SMEs with more time at the end of the day. But since they’re the experts, they’re also usually the ones creating that documentation.
- Simplifying technical concepts: Your SME shouldn’t the only person at the company to have a passing knowledge of their subject of expertise. They’ll usually be your person of choice for building presentations and leading workshops.
- Reviewing existing processes: Whatever their expertise, your SME probably has some idea of how they can improve its associated processes. Encourage them to regularly suggest ways to streamline these processes.
- Making resourcing and infrastructure recommendations: What this looks like in practice varies wildly depending on your SME’s specialty. A cybersecurity expert, for instance, will be asked for help choosing software tools, selecting physical equipment, and updating your software infrastructure to reflect best practices.
- Sales growth and account management: If an SME’s expertise applies directly to your sales process, it’s normal to bring them in to deal with a prospect’s objections or answer technical questions.
When do you need a subject matter expert?
Now that you have a better idea of who the subject matter experts are within your company, when should you go to them? The short version is whenever you have an important question no one else can answer. For the long version, here are some examples of situations where you need to ask the expert:
- Changing company-wide processes: Are you drafting new processes to promote equality and diversity at work? Then you’d better be consulting with experts — maybe even external consultants. When a new process has the potential to impact everyone in your company, you need to make sure it’s reviewed by expert eyes.
- Evaluating new hires: This will be challenging if you’re hiring for a completely new role. Nonetheless, you should always make sure that people who know this role are involved in the hiring process. This can streamline the process and ensure you get the perfect candidate. At Unito, we use pilot projects, reviewed by subject matter experts, to evaluate potential hires and make sure they’re a good fit.
- Creating marketing or sales collateral: Sometimes, the right collateral is just what you need to bring in more leads or close more deals. However, if your product or service is more technical, your writers will need help if they’re going to know what they’re talking about. Make sure there are subject matter experts available for them.
- Considering changes to your tools and vendors: Organizations need more tools and vendors than ever before to keep growing. Before considering the addition of a new work management tool or beginning a relationship with a new vendor, you should identify subject matter experts within your organization and consult them. For tools, that would involve IT and cybersecurity experts, to make sure the tool is right for the organization and that it won’t create security concerns. For vendors, that means the people affected by the change, the finance department, and ideally someone who is an expert in the service you’re about to contract for.
These are just a few examples of when you should be consulting a subject matter expert before acting. Generally speaking, if the action you’re about to take could have a big impact on the company, you should be consulting subject matter experts so you can see the situation from all angles before proceeding.
How to become a subject matter expert
So what if you want to become a subject matter expert? Maybe you’ve identified a gap in your organization’s range of experts, or there’s just a topic you’re passionate about. Whatever your motivation, here are a few simple ways to start on the path to becoming an expert.
Start by examining what you already know
Ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Put briefly, the less you know about a topic, the more confident you are that you’re an expert. Then, as your knowledge increases, your confidence in what you know decreases. That’s because learning more about a subject also reveals how much more there is to learn.
If you’re feeling the pull to become a subject matter expert, it might be because you’re somewhere in that place where your confidence in what you know is low. But that also means you probably already know more than you think. Start by taking an accounting of your current expertise and how much is left to figure out.
Seek out an(other) expert
Is someone at your organization already an expert in the field you want to learn more about? After finding out just how little you know about the field, maybe you should try booking a meeting with them, or reaching out to them via email. For instance, people looking to learn more about project management typically start by reaching out to established project managers within their organization.
If no one at your organization is already an expert, you’ll have to be a bit more creative. Are there local groups or associations built around your field of interest? Often, these groups are more than willing to help newcomers become experts. Alternatively, if your desired field of expertise would be an asset to your employer, you can start by asking your manager what services your organization provides for those looking to become experts. They might point you to local experts, courses, and more resources you’d never have found on your own.
Start a course or certification program
Many subject matter expert fields have specific certifications or training courses you can take to reach the level of expert. These might be taught at local colleges or through online platforms. For example, Amazon Web Services have a special training course specifically for those looking to become experts in cloud-based services. You might need to do a bit of digging to find a course that fits your desired field of expertise, but with the help of a mentor — or your employer — you should be able to narrow your options.
Share your expertise
One of the best ways to confirm what you already know while growing your knowledge is by teaching others. After all, being a subject matter expert means fielding questions from across your organization. So, once you’ve gained a solid base from courses or talking with experts, you should plan ways to share what you already know.
Maybe that means hosting a special event at work, where those interested can come learn the basics of your field. Or you could see about participating in local events centered around your area of expertise. Maybe it just means letting your employer know that you’re ready to become a resource at work.
Whichever method you choose, you’ll be surprised by the questions people ask. They’ll quickly find the gaps in your knowledge. This might seem stressful at first, but it’s a great way to find out what you still need to learn. There’s nothing stopping you from saying “that’s a great question, I’ll have to take some time to find an answer but I’ll get back to you.” Asking a question that stumps experts feels good for the asker, and it’ll feel even better when they get the answer in the end. Likewise, you’ll have learned something from the interaction.
Trust the experts
Being a subject matter expert isn’t obscure wizardry. Everyone who’s an expert in something today began as someone who didn’t know anything. Through time, training, and perseverance, they reached the level of expertise they’re at today. Whether you’re looking to become a subject matter expert yourself, or you just wanted to know the definition of the term next time someone brings it up in a meeting, remember that the path to expertise isn’t impossible, and friendly experts are everywhere.