What Are Subject Matter Experts & How to Benefit From Them

What Are Subject Matter Experts & How to Benefit From Them

Are you stuck in a research rut? Can’t seem to find viable solutions? Do you want to implement advanced technology but don’t know a thing about it? Subject matter experts might be exactly what you need. Discover the value these professionals can offer your company.

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

A subject matter expert is a person with professional experience, specialised knowledge, and unique expertise. With extensive knowledge in their specific area of expertise, they are able to provide insights on complex topics and solutions to complex problems. They are generally regarded as the highest authority on a particular subject.

An SME can be a former manager at a regulatory body, a community or board advisor, or the company’s own managing director. But, it’s important to remember that the titles aren’t what make an SME, instead it’s their expertise.

Who Qualifies as a Subject Matter Expert?

To be qualified as a subject matter expert, a professional should have either of the following:

  • Academic Qualifications: Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, or PhD
  • Publications: case studies, research, conference papers and/or presentations
  • Endorsements: recommended by other industry experts, featured in top lists of people in the industry, has a wide and diverse network of supporters
  • Field Experience: at least 10 years in the industry or 5 years in a particular job role

male subject matter expert doing work

Subject Matter Expert Roles

Subject matter experts wear many hats and usually take on at least one of these roles:

  • Research Partner –  The subject matter expert serves as a source of information and guides the research process. For example, a company might need them for their knowledge of a niche market.
  • Advisor – The subject matter expert gives advice on how to go about certain processes. For example, they might be hired by the company to help in the implementation of a new project.
  • Assurer – The subject matter expert reviews business processes and solutions and evaluates their effectiveness. For example, their approval might lend credibility to the performance results of a project.

Subject Matter Expert Responsibilities

These are just some of the responsibilities that might be part of an SME’s job:

  • Answer key questions from board members and other employees.
  • Provide insights on project performance objectives and acceptable performance levels.
  • Help the company create new processes to improve productivity and increase profits.
  • Aid in the decision-making process of other team members in the department.
  • Assist the company in maximising the use of their resources such as technology and the skills of employees.

Given the nature of their profession, the subject matter expert’s exact duties depend on the person or company seeking their services.

SME vs Consultant

A key difference is that a consultant tends to only take on the role of advisor, while a subject matter expert has more flexibility and versatility when it comes to what they can do. Another difference between a consultant and an SME is the degree of involvement.

A consultant is usually hired by another business to create a strategy that targets a specific problem they have. After presenting the strategy to the relevant department, the consultant generally moves on to another job. However, if the consultant has a long-term contract with the business, they may have a higher degree of involvement.

On the other hand, an SME can be an employee of the business seeking their services. Though, of course, some subject matter experts are hired on a one-time basis, similar to consultants. But, more often than not, most businesses will try to form solid relationships with their SMEs. This is due to two reasons:

  1. Subject matter experts are typically very influential in their particular area of expertise. Having someone with a high level of influence on your side can be an advantage, especially for those businesses in niche industries.
  2. Businesses might need an SME’s knowledge, skills, and ability in their specific area of expertise more frequently. While consultants are mostly hired for a particular problem or process, subject matter experts can apply their expertise more broadly.

female subject matter expert giving advice over phone

SME vs AI

Now you might be tempted to ask, “Can AI replace SMEs?” Well, for now, they can’t. Even ChatGPT itself has a disclaimer that it can produce inaccurate information, so it can hardly be called an expert. That’s not to say a subject matter expert can’t give you inaccurate information, but the chances are at least smaller. While many trainers and assessors are leveraging AI, you can’t replace the real deal when it comes to experience.

You might also be thinking, “Some AIs have passed the Turing test though.” However, the Turing test is essentially a measure of how well an AI can fool a human into thinking it’s human by imitating human behaviours. The subject matter expert Turing test (also called the Feigenbaum test) is the same, except that it’s focused on subject matter experts specifically.

Even if AI has passed the Feigenbaum test, it only proves that AI can imitate the actual experts. SME knowledge isn’t just textbook knowledge that can be easily found or exactly replicated. Many SMEs have a deep understanding of their subject matter that goes beyond surface-level information.

The way SMEs understand a specific topic is also unique to them since it’s a product of various uncontrollable factors, such as their life experience and who they are. Like other professionals, subject matter experts can’t be replaced by technology entirely.

Why Do We Need Subject Matter Experts?

Though subject matter experts are important in general, they are especially crucial in the development of training materials. One case study (Cooper & Renshaw, 2023) revealed the consequences of not getting a real subject matter expert.

The authors of the case study were both part of an instructional design team for the Indiana University School of Medicine. One author is a family medicine physician and assistant professor of clinical family medicine with experience in the subject matter (introductory motivational interviewing). With such qualifications, this author believed that they were a suitable SME for the project.

The project was to create a Virtual Patient Experience (VPE). After getting learner feedback on the first version of their VPE, the authors realised two things:

  • It needed to be completely redone.
  • They needed an actual SME to make this project a success.

For the second version, the authors worked with the right SME (a behavioural psychologist teaching the subject matter to residency-level learners). Here’s the change in learner feedback:

  • Agreed the module was presented interestingly and actively – went from 93% to 96%
  • Agreed it was helpful in applying the subject matter techniques – went from 85% to 87%
  • Agreed that they would like to see more VPEs like this one – went from 79% to 97%

As the case study shows, choosing the right SME is tricky, but absolutely worth the effort.

Steps Before You Look for an SME

Here are 4 steps you need to complete before you start searching for SMEs:

1. Assess your resources

Do you have the budget and time to work with a subject matter expert? If you don’t have the right resources, you might not find the right subject matter expert or you might end up wasting their time. If this is the case, consider leveraging the knowledge and skills of your employees.

2. Identify your specific SME requirements

For example, the authors of the case study discussed in the previous section needed one with experience in teaching the subject matter, not just practising it. Think of the knowledge and skills you require for the project.

3. Define current understanding of procedures and processes

To make knowledge sharing between the subject matter expert and your team easier, you need to document your understanding of procedures and processes. This way, the SME can easily compare your understanding with their understanding of the subject matter.

4. Prepare your employees

Ensure that your employees see working with a subject matter expert as a learning experience. It’s incredibly important that they have the right attitude and an open mind before you begin communication with a subject matter expert.

Communicating with Subject Matter Experts

Here are 3 best practices for dealing with subject matter experts:

1. Communicate their way

To get the most out of SME interviews, you should adjust to how subject matter experts communicate. A chapter from the book “Interviewing Experts” states that:

  • interviews must be adapted to the specific modes of communication characteristic of the social setting that they seek to address
  • the research process should respect the existing structures of everyday communication in the field

For example, SMEs who are managers tend to respond well to argumentative and discursive interviewing that’s presented in a question-answer format. A possible reason behind this, according to the chapter’s author, is that:

“These forms of interviewing correspond with the situation managers face in the company when, for instance, the works council or their superiors question their positions and they are required to justify them.”

2. Create a knowledge map

According to an article published in the Educational Psychology Review, knowledge maps are “node-link representations in which ideas are located in nodes and connected to other related ideas through a series of labelled links.”

In relation to working with subject matter experts, a case study (Keppell, 1999) found that using a knowledge map as a communication prop is helpful in improving interaction with an SME. It can confirm that knowledge sharing is productive and accurate. It can also help both you and the SME identify gaps in information.

3. Use a teach-back procedure

This might come as a shock for someone unfamiliar with the subject matter, but you can actually teach what you’ve learned from the SME back to them. However, it’s important that you do this at the right point in time.

The same case study (Keppell, 1999) reported that using the teachback procedure during SME interviews can cause them to lose their train of thought and become irritated. Instead, the procedure should only be used after knowledge map creation.

Closing Thoughts

While subject matter experts can do many things, that doesn’t mean they can do everything. Case in point: Though the L&D industry (RTOs in Australia and training providers in the UK) hires subject matter experts to help in training development, they still need instructional designers for training content creation and trainers for training content delivery.

However, some subject matter experts could have the necessary trainer skills or have experience in instructional design. Unfortunately, it might not be suitable for instructional designers to act as subject matter experts, as shown by the first case study (Cooper & Renshaw, 2023). It’s also possible that the same issues arise when it’s vice versa.

Therefore, you shouldn’t displace your existing employees or neglect their potential just because you’re getting subject matter experts onboard.

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