Understanding the Role and Purpose of the Subject Matter Expert

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Definition:

A subject matter expert in business (also known as SME) is an individual with a deep understanding of a particular process, function, technology, machine, material or type of equipment. Individuals designated as subject matter experts are typically sought out by others interested in learning more about or leveraging their unique expertise to solve specific problems or help meet particular technical challenges.

Subject matter experts in some fields often serve as expert witnesses in lawsuits and other legal actions. 

Becoming a Subject Matter Expert:

Typically, subject matter experts have developed their expertise in their particular discipline over a long period of time and after a great deal of immersion in the topic. Many subject matter experts have pursued advanced degrees in their area of specialization. Additionally, the experts maintain a rigorous program of continuous study in their field. Many are active as authors, publishing books or articles on their topic. Others serve as educators in college and universities. This additional work and study helps ensure the SME individual maintains a current and complete knowledge of their specific area of expertise. 

Examples of Subject Matter Experts:

  • "Mary is our expert on that particular operating system. She can help us assess whether this new application is compatible with others."
  • "Juan is our data management specialist. He helps us understand how to extract and format the data for our marketing project."
  • "Sarah is the expert on this particular chemical and can testify in court to the proper use or misuse of it in commercial environments. 
  • "Aron is our expert on this product. If the customer service representative needs help, she will ask for Aron's input." 
  • "Javier is our social media marketing subject matter expert and guides our team members through this important new work in marketing."
  • "Kara is a senior researcher in our firm, specializing in searching for cures for auto-immune diseases. She is a leading contributor to medical journals on the subject and a frequent speaker at medical conferences." 
  • "Dave is the Chief Software Architect for our software company. He understands our customer needs and how our software products must be designed to meet those needs better than anyone in our firm." 

Subject Matter Experts Can Exist in all Functions in a Business:

While it is common to find SMEs in technical disciplines, experts can exist in all disciplines and functions. It is common to find SMEs in information technology, software development, marketing, and customer support and all other areas in a business. 

Situations Where It is Useful to Engage Subject Matter Experts:

It is common to draw upon a subject matter expert when attempting to navigate a particularly difficult challenge or problem. While many professionals are cross trained in their particular functions, some situations call for highly specialized knowledge.  

  • Information technology professionals will call upon various subject matter experts for insights into integrating new software applications or, fixing bugs or anomalies discovered during testing.  
  • Architects and engineers will call upon experts when considering new building technologies or design approaches.
  • Project teams engage subject matter experts when their more generalized knowledge of a topic is insufficient for the problem in front of them.
  • In the legal industry, expert witnesses are typically highly specialized subject matter experts called upon to testify in court cases, especially liability lawsuits. 
  • Innovators striving to apply new technologies or advancements will often draw upon the originators or external specialists to help them solve specific technical or business challenges. 

Subject matter experts are vital to helping groups solve highly specific problems where there general expertise proves insufficient. 

Considerations When Engaging Subject Matter Experts:

The highly specialized knowledge of the subject matter introduces some risk when dealing with broader systems issues.

While Mary might be the expert on a particular type of software application she may not understand how it interacts in concert with newer software applications outside of her expertise. A technical support expert may not be familiar with how his product works in particular situations or environments. It is important for the experts and other professionals to recognize when even highly specialized knowledge is insufficient to properly diagnose and remedy a unique problem. 

The Bottom Line: 

Developing as a subject matter expert takes time, experience and intense research and study. Many career professionals prefer to remain generalists, drawing upon the right subject matter experts at the right time to navigate unique and complex challenges. 

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Updated by Art Petty