The Role of Subject Matter Experts in Project Management

Learn about the benefits of working with an experienced SME in project management. Plus, see the best practices while working with an SME.

Working with a reputable subject matter expert (SME) is every project manager’s dream. In general, the subject matter expert’s role is to share their expertise with the project manager so the project manager can move forward with credible information to support their project. The subject matter expert will consult with, share their knowledge, or transfer their knowledge to internal employees to ensure facts and details are correct so the project deliverables meet the needs of the stakeholders, legislation, policies, standards, and best practices. 

In this article, we’ll dive into the roles and responsibilities of subject matter experts and project managers, cover the importance of working with subject matter experts in project management, and outline best practices to consider when working with a subject manager expert as a project manager. 

What is a subject matter expert? 

A subject matter expert (or SME) is an individual who has accumulated a great deal of knowledge in a specific niche. This knowledge is demonstrated by the individual’s degree, license, certifications, or years of experience. To be considered a subject matter expert, the individual in question needs to possess extensive knowledge in their area of expertise, keep up with the latest information, trends, and best practices within their area of expertise, and be recognized as an SME by an external party. Subject matter experts can’t simply deem themselves experts on a given subject matter.

Subject matter experts vs. project managers 

The main differentiator between subject matter experts and project managers is their scope of work. A project manager is usually an internal employee who is responsible for overseeing a project in its entirety; whereas a subject matter expert is normally an external party who is brought in to share their expertise or contribute to one facet of the project. When collaborating with an SME, the project manager will work with the subject matter expert to manage their contributions and facilitate the relationship between the SME and the remainder of the team. 

In this scenario, the subject matter expert will work hand in hand with the project manager to share their expertise and transfer their knowledge to the internal team. SMEs are often leveraged as an additional resource to enhance an organization’s efficiency by determining the organization’s needs, determining suitable solutions based on their expertise, and ensuring project requirements are met as they relate to their unique areas of expertise. 

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Skills for subject matter experts

Enlisting the help of a subject matter expert can be an excellent way to establish credibility, validate facts, and create accurate and up-to-date content. While the benefits of enlisting a subject matter expert are second to none, it’s important to source a credible candidate who is articulate, knowledgeable, and qualified for the job. An excellent SME will be educated, experienced, observant, inquisitive, social, engaged, freethinking, innovative, perceptive, cooperative, helpful, and articulate. In addition, SMEs need to be excellent at managing their time. These individuals are often highly sought after, meaning they need to be able to manage competing priorities. 

Skills for project managers

Project managers are skilled professionals who manage multiple aspects of a project including planning, procurement, and execution. Common responsibilities for project managers include planning and implementing projects; defining project scope, goals, and deliverables; defining tasks and required resources; managing the project budget; allocating project resources; creating a schedule and project timeline; and tracking deliverables. 

Required skills for successful project managers are: 

  • Leadership 
  • Negotiation 
  • Risk management 
  • Technical expertise 
  • Effective communication 
  • Scheduling and time management 
  • Critical thinking and problem solving 

Why are subject matter experts important in project management?

1Save time by removing trial and error 

Subject matter experts are referred to as experts for a reason. They know what will work and what won’t, so project managers don’t have to spend time getting things wrong before they get them right. Instead of going through many rounds of trial and error, your team can start strong by partnering with an SME who has the skills and expertise necessary to help you get it right the first time. 

2Advise on strategy 

Conceptualizing a strategy can be incredibly difficult—especially if you don’t have an in-house SME who can point you in the right direction. Leveraging an external subject matter expert is an excellent way to bring the expertise you need in-house. Having a subject matter expert who can come in and consult on strategy may be all your team needs to start things off on the right foot. If you aren’t sure where to begin on a complex project, consulting with an experienced SME on strategy may be exactly what you need to get started with confidence.

3Free up the project manager’s time 

Project managers are arguably one of the busiest people on a team. They are constantly balancing priorities, working within tight deadlines, and making sure everyone on the team has what they need to succeed. Anything a project manager can do to save time is huge. Leveraging a subject matter expert to come in and share their expertise or transfer their knowledge to internal team members is an excellent way for project managers to boost efficiency and save time. 

Best practices while working with a subject matter expert 

1Collaborate on project deliverables

When creating a successful relationship with your subject matter expert, collaboration is key. Collaborating on project deliverables is a great way to ensure you’re getting the most out of your relationship. While your SME may mainly be responsible for consulting or sharing their knowledge, it doesn’t hurt to ask for their expertise or opinion on the final product. Collaborating on key deliverables will ensure your SME’s expertise is woven throughout your entire project. 

2Ask and give regular feedback 

Feedback is an essential part of every relationship. Giving feedback to your SME is an excellent way to boost performance and improve quality, and receiving feedback from your SME is a great way to enhance your working relationship. Tools like Fellow make giving and receiving feedback a breeze. With Fellow, all of your feedback is centrally located in your main feedback inbox, which can be located by clicking on the thumb icon on the left-hand navigation bar. All your feedback can easily be located on a card and works similarly to how your email inbox works. 

3Ask for their input 

It’s important that your subject matter expert feels valued and included. Asking for their input throughout your project is a great way to make sure they know their opinion is valued. Sometimes it really is as simple as just asking! 

4Manage their contributions 

As a project manager, you’re responsible for managing projects in their entirety. This means that in addition to managing your internal teams’ contributions, you’ll also manage your subject matter experts’ contributions. As the project manager, it’s your job to make sure the SME has everything they need to succeed and contribute to your project with ease. It’s also your responsibility to make sure their contributions mesh well with the project. 

5Provide support 

As the project manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure the subject matter expert feels supported. This means doing your best to integrate them into your internal team so everyone can work cohesively and contribute to the success of the project. To make the SME feel supported, it’s important to create an open line of communication. Creating a shared Slack channel or scheduling frequent check-ins through an intuitive meeting software tool like Fellow is a great way to make sure your SME feels connected and supported. 

6Have clear reporting lines 

Bringing in an external party to work under contract or on a part-time basis can be incredibly difficult, mainly because reporting lines are often blurred. When bringing in a subject matter expert, it’s important to clearly establish who will be responsible for this person. This includes establishing a point of contact between your SME and their manager and making sure both parties are clear on what is expected of each other. 

Are you prepared to work with a subject matter expert in project management? 

If you’ve made it to the end of this article, you officially have everything you need to embark on a healthy relationship with an experienced subject matter expert! Remember, as a project manager, working with an SME is one of the best things you can do to heighten your credibility while simultaneously boosting productivity. 

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About the author

Hannah Ross

Hannah is an experienced content creator and digital strategist with a demonstrated history of working with startups, small business owners, and large organizations. Presently, Hannah serves as the Founder at Flamingo Social where she strives to create impactful organic content marketing strategies that help founders tell inspiring stories.

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