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What is a Subject Matter Expert?

See how we outline the importance of leveraging a subject matter expert with highly specialized knowledge.

By Hannah Ross  •   March 7, 2023  •   6 min read

Enlisting the help of a subject matter expert (SME) can be an excellent way to establish credibility and depth; validate facts, hunches, and concepts; create relevant, accurate, and up-to-date content; and humanize the learning experience. While the benefits of enlisting an SME are second to none, it’s important to source a credible candidate that meshes well with your existing team. 

In this article, we’ll dive into the roles and responsibilities of subject matter experts, the characteristics of an effective subject matter expert, and tips and tricks for sourcing the right subject matter expert. We’ll also touch on the benefits of working with an SME and practices that you can leverage to get the most out of your subject matter expert relationships. 

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. When you’re working with a subject matter expert, the SME will be responsible for sharing their knowledge and expertise on a specific subject, business area, or niche. These individuals 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. 

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.

An excellent subject matter expert will be educated, experienced, observant, inquisitive, social, engaged, freethinking, innovative, perceptive, cooperative, helpful, and articulate. When selecting a subject matter expert, it’s important to choose an individual who communicates and collaborates effectively and efficiently. 

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Subject matter expert responsibilities

A subject matter expert will be knowledgeable, helpful, and equipped to share their knowledge when asked. While the roles and responsibilities of an SME will vary from project to project, their main responsibility is consulting and educating third parties on their areas of expertise. 

Additional responsibilities include: 

  • Creating proposal content for sales professionals
  • Educating and strategizing with marketing departments
  • Consulting with and advising product development teams
  • Hosting educational or informational webinars or in-person sessions

Finding the right subject matter expert

1Identifying the necessary skills and expertise

You’re working with an SME for their expertise, which is why it’s incredibly important to do your due diligence and make sure the candidate you’re pursuing has the right skills and expertise for the job. Identifying whether or not the subject matter expert in question has the skills and expertise necessary for the job doesn’t have to be complicated. This process can be as simple as asking the candidate for prior work samples or references from similar projects.

If you’re wary about finding a quality candidate, it’s always best to start within your network. Reaching out to your connections or posting a brief ad on LinkedIn may be all it takes to source a pool of qualified candidates. Your goal during this process should be to learn as much as possible about the candidate on a professional level so you can determine if their expertise and experience will translate into something of value for your project. 

2Assessing the subject matter expert’s availability and capability

Having an in-depth understanding of a subject matter expert’s niche is one thing, but being able to convey it clearly is another. Making sure your SME is capable of articulating all core concepts and ideas as they pertain to their niche is crucial. At the end of the day, you need to be able to take this information and convey it to your audience in a way that’s clear and easy to consume. Your subject matter expert needs to be capable of breaking down the complexities of their respective niche to offer the information to you in a way that’s easy to understand. 

In addition to making sure your SME is capable, you need to identify their availability. There’s no sense in pursuing a relationship with a subject matter expert if they’re already drowning in work and can’t take on your project. If you take the time to meet, make sure to get a feel for how many existing clients they have on their plate and what their current bandwidth looks like. 

3Building a relationship with the subject matter expert

Chances are, if you’re using a subject matter expert for one project, you’ll need to leverage their expertise again in the future. Unless you’re working on a super niche one-off project, you may find yourself connecting with this individual frequently. Building a positive relationship with your SME will ensure you can rely on them for future interactions. It’s important to keep an open line of communication and treat every interaction with kindness and gratitude to build upon and strengthen your working relationship. 

Benefits of working with a subject matter expert

1Streamlines workflow 

Streamlining processes and procedures is the most effective way to improve operational efficiency and increase profits. Working with an SME will help you remove any unnecessary steps from your workflow by helping you source the information you need and helping eliminate the risk of repeating tasks as a result of misinformation. You’ll be able to streamline efficiency by working with an expert who knows exactly what you need. 

2Allows for a transfer of knowledge

Working with a subject matter expert poses an excellent opportunity to train or upskill your employees. Working with a skilled SME is a great opportunity for employees to refine their skills and learn something new. Fellow also makes the process of transferring knowledge from your SME to your employees seamless with collaborative meeting agendas that can be used to take thorough meeting notes during the learning process. 

3Saves money 

Many people have the false perception that working with a subject matter expert is more costly simply because of the initial upfront cost. What many people fail to realize is the money you save in the long term by working with a professional who knows what they’re talking about. Working with an SME from the beginning will ensure you save time and resources by gaining the knowledge you need immediately as opposed to moving forward without the proper resources and ultimately making mistakes. 

4Offers correct information 

It’s no secret that information about almost anything is at our fingertips. The risk associated with having so much information readily available is that we don’t always source information from credible sources. Working with a subject matter expert will ensure you have access to credible information from a reputable source. 

Maximizing the benefits of subject matter expert collaboration 

1Understanding subject matter expert communication styles

Everyone has different preferences when it comes to communication. Oftentimes miscommunication is a result of different communication styles. Understanding your communication style as well as your SME’s communication style will provide you with the framework you need to adapt and communicate with each other effectively.

2Building trust and collaboration with subject matter experts

Trust and collaboration are two very important aspects of SME relationships. Not only does trust help build and maintain strong working relationships, but it also creates a positive work environment where SMEs feel comfortable and empowered to do their best work. Similar to trust, creating an open line of communication that helps foster collaboration between yourself, your team, and the SME is imperative. 

3Incorporating subject matter expert input into project planning and execution

Sourcing the information you need is one thing, but leveraging the SME’s expertise effectively is another. To achieve the best results, it’s important to include your subject matter expert in all phases of the project, including planning and execution. 

Start your journey with a highly specialized subject matter expert today

The benefits of working with an SME to serve as an expert witness or consult on a specialized project are second to none. Considering these tips, tricks, and best practices will ensure you have everything you need to maximize any future relationships you may embark on with subject matter experts. 

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