What Is a Subject Matter Expert and What Do They Do?

By Chris Kolmar - Nov. 6, 2020
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Subject matter experts, or SMEs, are individuals who have specialized knowledge of a particular field, technology, process, department, machine, or job. As technology and processes become more advanced at a more rapid pace, there is a growing demand for SMEs.

Becoming an SME takes time and sustained effort, but anyone can grow into an SME role with persistence. Let’s take a closer look at what SMEs do and what skills are essential for the job.

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

According to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, a subject matter expert is a “person with bona fide expert knowledge about what it takes to do a particular job.” In other words, an SME is a guy or gal in the office who has a deep mastery in a specific job, technology, or process that the rest of the company (or elements of it) needs to know.

A subject matter expert can be an internal employee whom a company hires to provide specialized insight into a specific part of its organizational or business infrastructure. They can also be a consultant who is contracted to advise a company on a technical practice for a service fee.

SMEs typically focus on technical fields, like information technology, to develop and advise on technical solutions to a company’s problems. However, several fields and industries employ subject matter experts, including:

  • Information technology

  • Health

  • Law

  • Education

  • Accounting

  • Public relations

  • Marketing

  • Engineering

  • Human resources

  • Software development

  • Customer Support

SMEs need to communicate highly specialized and complex information effectively to the people they are advising. These advisees often have limited knowledge and training pertinent to the data being relayed, so the ability to simplify and articulate these difficult concepts is one of the core functions of a subject matter expert. This is why SMEs are often called to serve as expert witnesses in court cases.

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What Are a Subject Matter Expert’s Responsibilities?

In today’s workforce, cross-trained professionals with more generalist skills make up the bulk of the employee base. So when a challenge arises that requires highly specialized knowledge, a company will call on its SME for guidance.

An SME, who has developed abundant experience and know-how within a specific method, technology, or practice, must also have excellent communication skills. Communicating complex concepts to non-experts is at the heart of the consultative nature of an SME’s work.

Duties common among SMEs include:

  • Prescribe processes that help businesses consistently and efficiently perform their tasks

  • Consult on a company’s software, equipment, and technology infrastructure

  • Analyze how resources are being utilized by a company and recommend more efficient practices

  • Teach complicated, technical concepts in a way that a layperson can understand

  • Align company values with a strategic vision for growth and development

  • Advise on best practices for a specific project, technology, or process

  • Develop training materials for new and existing employees

The duties above are highly generalized, so it may help to look at more specific applications of an SME’s knowledge. Since various fields and industries employ SMEs, it is impossible to give a comprehensive list of their responsibilities. However, providing some examples of an SME’s role in different situations should highlight common elements of an SME’s job.

  • A team of engineers calls upon an SME to consider the feasibility of new approaches to design or construction.

  • The human resources department of a company seeks the up-to-date, expert opinions of an SME on developing a new training program or invites them to teach employees a new specialized skill.

  • A project team with limited knowledge of a specific element of software asks for an SME’s guidance in navigating technology that their general knowledge doesn’t cover.

  • In a liability case, a lawyer calls upon an SME as an expert witness to explain a complex element of the litigation.

  • An IT professional seeks different SMEs’ guidance to discover how best to integrate emerging software applications or fix bugs that pop up during integration.

  • A marketing team reaches out to a social media marketing expert to train employees on developing a Facebook campaign.

  • A company calls on an SEO SME to boost their web traffic

How to Become a Subject Matter Expert

As you’ve probably guessed by now, one does not simply become a subject matter expert overnight. It takes years of study and experience to develop into a subject matter expert. Because of this, many opt to remain generalists who can call on the appropriate subject matter expert when the time comes.

If you’re still interested in becoming a subject matter expert, follow these steps.

  1. Choose your subject. Before you become an expert on something, you have to decide what that something is. Select a topic that interests you, is in high demand, and has ample opportunities for specialization. Find out what qualifications top experts in the field have earned and how feasible it is for you to earn these for yourself.

  2. Build up your knowledge. The majority of SMEs attain one or multiple advanced degrees. If attending courses in-person isn’t feasible for you, find online classes and certification programs. Seek out experts to advise you on what coursework and certifications will be the most valuable for you. You may even have a chance to build up your body of work by publishing research during your education.

    Supplement your book-learning with some on-the-job experience. Seek out opportunities to boost your skills and gain hands-on experience that utilizes your developing knowledge.

    The old adage, “fake it ‘til you make it,” does not apply to SMEs. You will be conversing with other experts and knowledgeable individuals, so you must be a bona fide expert to succeed in this role.

  3. Never stop learning. Already got your fancy Ph.D.? Great! The journey doesn’t end there, though. As a subject matter expert, you’re expected to have the most up-to-date knowledge of anyone in the field. That means attending and possibly contributing to conferences, joining the conversation on social media platforms, and reading sources that focus on emerging concepts within your field.

  4. Implement your ideas. Having all the knowledge in the world about a particular topic is not enough to be an SME. You need to put your knowledge to the test by trying out the innovative ideas that your research has taught you.

    You get two benefits from putting your ideas into action. One, you can test your theories and discover the outcomes of their implementation. Two, you are building up your credentials to show that your ideas actually do hold water in a real-world setting.

  5. Get involved. Whether it’s social media, a blog, a podcast, an independent publication, a conference presentation, or something else, you need to put yourself and your ideas out there to be recognized as a true blue SME.

    You can start small by following pertinent hashtags on Twitter to see what popular topics in your field are and sharing new information on the subject from relevant sources. Then you can start sharing elements of your unique vision on the subject and see how others respond.

    Think of other creative ways to make your insights available online, such as creating a YouTube channel centered around content related to a specific element of your field. The idea is that you want to come across as an authority, so others will take the time to listen to your input.

  6. Learn how to simplify. This is a crucial step that separates good subject matter experts from phenomenal ones. Knowing a highly specified topic isn’t worth as much if you can’t adequately communicate those ideas to a layperson.

    Deep understanding of the topic is the first step, but the next involves some interdisciplinary tactics – you also need to become a master of deconstructive thinking. You can practice this in tandem with earlier steps by writing simplified summaries of complex texts as you read them.

    Confident and authoritative writing is what you’re after, but the more digestible you can make your content, the more practice you’ll have in communication, a critical skill for any SME.

  7. Be authentic. Being seen as a trusted, non-partisan source is a prerequisite to being utilized as an SME. If a company wants to use an SME to tout the benefits of a new product or a lawyer wants you to speak to the damaging effects of a product in a court case, the SME mustn’t be viewed as a person persuaded by profit.

    In the same way, if a company wants you to implement a certain proprietary method or technology that you feel is worse than other available options; you need to remain neutral and stand up for your beliefs.

    An SME isn’t a puppet who rubberstamps all of a company’s decisions regarding a specific matter as a way of adding weight to their authority. It’s essential for an SME to always follow their own judgment, based on the best available information and their own experiences.

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Chris Kolmar

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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