What Is a Subject Matter Expert? (And Pros and Cons of Using an SME)
Updated July 21, 2022
Companies recruit subject matter experts, or SMEs, for their unique expertise in solving specific problems or challenges. These professionals can be valuable additions to organizations, and there are some associated advantages and disadvantages to be aware of. In this article, we discuss what an SME is, how they fit into the workplace and what sort of advantages and disadvantages to consider.
What is a subject matter expert?
A subject matter expert is a person with extensive knowledge of a particular job, process, department, function, technology, machine, material or equipment type. Many companies use SMEs to identify potential challenges in a specific field and find ways to overcome those challenges. SMEs can also help companies create innovative processes that save time and resources or increase profits.
A subject matter expert could also perform the following duties:
Meet with company decision-makers to identify needs
Perform surveys to find areas of improvement
Explain technical concepts in an easy-to-understand manner
Make suggestions for improvement through new techniques, software or technology
Monitor outcomes of solutions to make adjustments
To develop their skills, SMEs devote their time to gaining knowledge through practical experience and research and study. Many SMEs have advanced degrees in their areas of specialization. Some are active authors or lecturers on their topics. Others choose to serve as educators in their fields at colleges and universities.
SMEs also complete continuing education or training to ensure they stay up to date in their areas of expertise. This could include taking courses, attending conferences or reading journals or articles.
How can you use subject matter experts?
Companies use SMEs based on their specific needs and industry. Across all industries, companies can use SMEs for the following:
SMEs help guide other team members in their planning, content creation and knowledge sharing. They are usually active participants in all areas of project development and commit to the team effort.
SMEs can take a large amount of knowledge and communicate it to everyone, from other experts to those with little-to-no background on a topic. They can convey information clearly and concisely by determining which facts, details and processes are most relevant to a specific project and highlighting them. They also decide which points to discuss briefly or omit to keep communication streamlined.
Subject matter experts are especially useful in identifying potential challenges in complicated areas and creating unique solutions. They can apply specific knowledge and experience in a subject that other employees may not possess.
What are the advantages of hiring a subject matter expert?
Hiring an SME can bring advantages in multiple areas for your team. Areas that benefit include:
SMEs who are skilled collaborators, communicators, time managers and problem solvers help teams improve their workflow and ultimately their projects and products. Efficiently organized tasks that include the right amount of detail can help companies run more logically and achieve a better output.
SMEs provide valuable content for process documentation and articles that employees can reference whenever they have questions about a particular program or process. The content they create on a topic can provide a more in-depth look at the material, including step-by-step lists that are easy to follow. Sometimes, when using testing or experiments, SME content can yield more successful, detailed results.
Companies often want to get their best results at their lowest price, and using an SME is one way to achieve that goal. Rather than giving different responsibilities to multiple generalists, employing an SME to focus on one niche can help save the time and resources of other team members.
Companies can hire SMEs as full-time internal employees to provide consistent, unique insight to the organization. They could also choose to hire SMEs as third-party contractors or consultants who offer subject-matter service on a needs-based schedule for an hourly fee. In either case, adding an SME to the payroll can help cut costs without sacrificing quality.
What are the disadvantages of hiring a subject matter expert?
Hiring an SME can have disadvantages depending on your team's individual needs. Potential disadvantages of hiring a subject matter expert include:
Sometimes, a subject matter expert may be too specialized, meaning they focus on one unique niche instead of one broader subject. For example, if a university needs to hire an SME to help it choose and implement the right learning management system software for the campus network, it probably wants an SME with in-depth knowledge of many LMS programs. Choosing an SME who knows only the details of the calendar system of one or more LMS programs instead may not be the right fit.
Especially in subject areas with a lot of technical language, like healthcare or some branches of science and mathematics, SMEs may experience challenges simplifying material for a general audience. However, SMEs can often overcome this obstacle by offering clear communication and being patient.
When hiring an SME as a consultant, rather than as part of a full-time team, you may experience challenges in the collaboration stage. For example, the SME might not be aware of the full scope of the project, or the team doesn't have as much background knowledge as expected. You can usually overcome this obstacle by briefing an SME on the project and the expertise that each team member offers before they start.
Example SME scenarios
The following examples show subject matter experts in fictional scenarios so you can see how SMEs work in real-world situations:
Andre is a subject matter expert who works for a national lumber company. He helps the company secure new clients by sharing his design concepts and building principles.
Jane is a forensic pathologist who works for a Medical Examiner's office. Lawyers call on her to testify in court as an expert witness to determine evidence's plausibility in an ongoing trial.
Noah is a search engine optimization (SEO) consultant. Charlie's Cupcake Cart hired him to set up local SEO and improve their organic search results.
Jasmine is an independent pharmaceutical expert. She works with both large-scale and small-town pharmacies to create training programs for new hires.
Len is an accounting expert for a mid-sized financial firm. He is also a professor at his local university and peer reviews articles about accounting and finance which appear in national journals.
Kayla works for the Eclectic Ensembles fashion company. She is a platform expert who handles customer experience through the company's CRM tool.
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