What Is a Subject Matter Expert? (With 5 Steps To Become One)

Updated July 20, 2023

Image description

A man presents two charts to a table of other people. There's also a list with the title "Becoming A Subject Matter Expert" and these items:

• Choose a specialty or specialties
• Educate yourself
• Refine your processes
• Establish your place in the niche
• Strive for authenticity

Subject matter experts, also called SMEs, are professionals who have advanced knowledge in a specific field. As an authority in a particular area or topic, they are uniquely qualified to provide guidance and strategy. SMEs are especially in high demand in workplaces requiring a technical approach to operations and culture.

In this article, we explain what a subject matter expert is and how to become one.

Key takeaways

  • An SME is an authority on a specific area, practice, process, technical method or piece of equipment.

  • An SME may be used by a variety of industries to help solve problems or create new processes.

  • An SME continues to gain knowledge through continuing education and experience to stay current in their area of expertise.

What is a subject matter expert?

Subject matter experts offer companies or clients highly specialized knowledge regarding a specific area, practice, process, technical method or piece of equipment. They are sought out by others to solve specific problems or meet challenges. An SME might be an employee who provides unique insight into a certain element or process within a company. They can also be third-party contractors who offer subject matter services on an hourly or service fee basis. Subject matter experts in some fields often serve as expert witnesses in lawsuits or other legal actions.

A notable trait of SMEs is their knowledge base and experience are teachable, allowing them to share what they know to support the needs of a company.

SMEs are used in many industries, including:

  • Human resource management

  • Law

  • Education

  • Engineering

  • Accounting

  • Public relations

  • Marketing

  • Information technology (IT)

  • Health

  • Architecture

  • Software development

  • Customer support

Duties of a subject matter expert

Typical duties for SMEs include:

  • Analyzing company activities to ensure resources are used efficiently

  • Providing documentation and communication regarding specialized organizational processes

  • Taking a technical concept and making it easier to understand

  • Creating and editing processes to help businesses perform tasks consistently

  • Supporting leadership in aligning company and personal values with a strategic vision

  • Making recommendations for technology infrastructure, software and equipment

  • Assisting in sales growth and account management when needed

Related: What Is a Subject Matter Expert? (And Pros and Cons of Using an SME)

How to become a subject matter expert

Professionals may follow these steps to become SMEs:

1. Gain knowledge of a subject

SMEs must be knowledgeable. If you want to become a subject matter expert, you must learn new things and develop new skills. You can do this by taking courses—such as online classes or certification coursework—and balancing that with experience.

Look for opportunities to increase your subject matter skills. This may be through work or volunteer projects so you can achieve hands-on experience within the subject. Consider only pursuing topics you find interesting since you will be dedicating a lot of time to learning them.

2. Seek continuing education opportunities

Outside of traditional coursework, there are many ways to continually pursue education and become a subject matter expert. This could include attending conferences, participating in discussions as part of a community of experts, posting on social media and staying current on the latest news and trends about the subject.

3. Test and test again

While having new ideas is part of the job, it's important to test your theories and prove outcomes. A successful SME is always working on innovative processes and testing their work. Your practices must be tested because your performance depends on them. For example, if you come to a company with an idea to organize their IT department, you want to make sure it's going to work for them.

4. Be an authority

As an SME, it’s important to present yourself as an authority on a given subject. One way to do this is to manage your social media presence. You can use Q&A websites to offer expert advice, participate in social media forums and even write columns for publications notable in the field. All of these actions help establish you as a subject matter expert to others.

You can position yourself as a thought leader by starting an informative blog or a YouTube channel on your subject matter. You want to put your voice out into places where it's likely to be heard by the people you need to reach most as an expert.

If you work in an authoritative role such as management, it may be easier to be recognized as an SME. As such, plan your career accordingly to become a subject matter expert.

Related: Develop Communication Skills

5. Prioritize authenticity

Finally, you must be yourself. Consumers who might benefit from your services will appreciate your authenticity. To be viewed as a trusted expert, you be seen as neutral and not motivated by sales or commissions.

Related: A Guide To Integrity in the Workplace

Example SME scenarios

Here are examples of what SMEs in fictional workplace scenarios:

  • Taylor provides expert consultation on network activity. He can help American Fashion Co. determine what fluctuations in network activity mean for customer experience.

  • Eleanor is a search engine optimization (SEO) consultant. The Corner Donut Shoppe hired her to help them with their website, including setting up SEO and raising organic search results.

  • Maxwell is a leadership expert. When a board of directors calls him to interact with their team, he recommends major organizational changes by offering leadership insight and new strategies.

  • Kiara works for Flack Soda Brand. She is the platform expert who handles customer experience through the company's customer relationship management (CRM) tool.

  • Jonathan works for a digital company pairing consumers with credit card partners. He is the credit card SME responsible for ensuring all communication about credit cards is updated and accurate and database information is current.

  • Angie is an SME who works for a national floor care company. She helps the company secure new clients by sharing her knowledge of floor care principles.

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