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What is a Subject Matter Expert (SME)?

As brilliant as we might be, none of us have all the answers. As a learning and development (L&D) professional, your job is to equip people with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed. But how can you train other people on complex topics if you don’t understand them yourself? Enter the subject matter expert (SME)!

What is a subject matter expert? They’re those in your organisation who are supremely knowledgeable about a specific topic. As a result, this knowledge makes them a valuable member of your team. 

Luckily for you, with learning technology, you’re able to take advantage of this even further. In this article, you’ll learn exactly what a subject matter expert is, how to identify them and more. Let’s begin!

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

What is a subject matter expert

An expert is not a job role. These uncommon types don’t just fall from the sky. It takes years to become a real expert. 

Gaining relevant expertise comes from a mixture of formal and informal knowledge. You may learn something from a structured training programme that you never would have on-the-job and vice versa. 

This is worth its weight in gold. The stockpile of all your organisational knowledge is known as your intellectual capital. Interestingly, research shows that your organisation’s financial capital fundamentally relies on your intellectual capital. 

Therefore, this makes your subject matter experts tremendously important. They are the guardians of your intellectual capital. And if you play your cards right, they can help share valuable information, prevent knowledge silos and also improve organisational productivity.

In fact, encouraging SMEs to share their knowledge saves Fortune 500 companies a staggering $31.5 billion every year. 

Learning technology solutions (like an LMS) can help to make this happen. For example, on Growth Engineering LMS, social learning is used to stimulate discussion and knowledge sharing

and identify those who really know what they’re talking about. 

Why Your Subject Matter Experts Are Important

Subject matter experts harbour a lot of intellectual capital

A subject matter expert is the master of their own specific area of expertise. If you need to know about that topic, this expert is the person you need to speak with. 

An organisation will be made up of any number of these experts, who each reign over their subject of choice. Between them, they’ll have a wealth of knowledge, however it’s up to you to tap into it. 

Knowledge sharing has been around for decades and these days is key to a business’s success. A recent study found that knowledge sharing increases competitiveness. This leads to increased efficiency and customer satisfaction. 

The sharing of tacit and explicit knowledge also generates higher levels of creativity, group performance and better organisational processes.

In any eLearning project, it’s the instructional designer’s job to create learning content that effectively delivers a learning objective. Your instructional designers need to gather the information they need so that they can build a training course around it. 

This information can come from a variety of sources. It may come from their own knowledge or research. Alternatively, they may need to tap into the knowledge of their organisation’s SMEs.

This is why they need easy access to your experts! It’s a symbiotic relationship. Subject matter experts are full of knowledge that they’re itching to share. But it can be difficult to do so if there’s no dedicated space for it. Likewise, the instructional designer wants to create content that’s of real value for learners. They need the SME’s knowledge. 

Examples of Subject Matter Experts

Examples of different subject matter experts

An SME can have competence in any subject. It can be incredibly specialist, or as broad as you like. It also doesn’t necessarily have to be related to their job titles.

The simplest way to demonstrate what an SME does is to give examples. Here are just a few examples of different SMEs that you can designate:

  • Matt is a Head of Product. However, he’s also experienced in project management from start to finish. He knows the best way to prioritise tasks, organise a team and delegate work based on ability. Do you need some advice on how to delegate tasks for a new project? Then you should ask Matt!
  • Delilah is a Content Creator. She’s also in charge of your company’s social media channels. Consequently, she’s gained knowledge on what media formats your audience engage with the most, the most exciting copy to use and the best times to publish a new Tweet. If you need social media advice, you know that you need to shoot Delilah a message. 
  • Gary is Head of HR. He’s well-known around the workplace for being a whiz with Excel spreadsheets. Your manager asks you to create a spreadsheet to display recent metrics but you’ve never created one before. The best thing to do in this situation would be to seek Gary’s guidance. 

You can also have SMEs for topics that aren’t related to the workplace. For example, it’s vital that your company is taking your employees’ mental health into account. Indeed, in a survey with over 1,500 respondents, a shocking 75% of workers said they had suffered workplace burnout at their current job. 

To help meet this need you could hire licensed professionals and assign them a profile on your learning platform. As a result, employees have a dedicated expert available to discuss difficult subject matter. 

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), 3 in 4 people who engage in talk therapy feel the advantages of it. 

Identifying Your Subject Matter Experts

Unfortunately, SMEs don’t grow on trees. Fortunately, there are a few different ways for you to pinpoint and hone the skills of your company’s subject matter experts. 

1. Look for Quality

Look for quality in subject matter experts

Naturally, SMEs need to be knowledgeable on the subject they specialise in. This knowledge can come from formal training and be proven with credentials. An employee may have built this knowledge before joining your organisation or may have earned it through your training programmes. 

At the same time, being able to call upon hands-on experience is also incredibly valuable. In fact, according to the 70:20:10 Model, 90% of what we learn comes from a mix of social and on-the-job learning. 

If you notice that somebody is more productive than the rest of their team, you’ll want to make sure they share their secrets with everyone else. 

2. Monitor Social Channels

Use social channels to find subject matter experts

Being an expert means very little if you’re not able to put your knowledge to good use. Therefore, one of the key traits of a great subject matter expert is being able to communicate well. Effective use of soft skills makes for good communication which can improve productivity by 25%

On Growth Engineering LMS, your users have access to social feeds where they can discuss what they’ve learned through your training content. By monitoring these social channels, you’re able to see who provides the most value as part of the community.

That’s exactly the kind of person you need to be a point of call for those less knowledgeable about a topic. 

3. Verify Their Credentials

Verify subject matter experts' credentials

Of course, there’s an easy way to ensure your prospective SME really knows their stuff. A simple test can help to separate the wheat from the chaff! 

These tests can come in the form of multiple-choice questions, surveys and general assessments. A good learning management system or assessment suite will provide you with all the options you need. They’ll also arm you with a reporting suite for you to get a comprehensive view of the results.

You’ve now hand selected your subject matter experts and are ready to put them out into the field. Next up, you need to make sure you’re putting your experts to good use!

Utilising Your Subject Matter Experts

Growth Engineering LMS offers an Experts Area where SMEs can be set up to answer all your learners’ burning questions. The questions and answers can be made public for everyone at the company to view. This creates a stockpile of information and safeguards your intellectual capital.

Social learning features help learners to easily communicate with subject matter experts

Users on the platform can also make use of social learning features such as Live Chat. This instant messaging feature means that those who need help can send subject matter experts a question and get a response within minutes. Seamless communication is vital to effective business processes. 

In a recent survey, a staggering 89% of people claimed that effective communication is incredibly important. But a worrying 8 out of 10 regarded their workplace communication as average or poor. It’s up to you to facilitate easier correspondence between your employees. 

This gets even better when mobile learning comes into play. With Growth Engineering Learning App, you can take advantage of mobile phone features to enhance the learning experience. 

For example, similar to social networking sites like Instagram, subject matter experts can schedule live streams and notify users with posts in social feeds. In these live streams, learners can tune in and ask questions and receive answers in real time. 

Mobile learning has been shown to increase engagement by 72%! Furthermore, studies show that synchronous learning (i.e. learning that happens at a set time and place) creates greater satisfaction and an increased feeling of collaboration. This can increase innovation by 15%.

Using Gamification to Promote a Knowledge Sharing Culture

With the use of gamification, you’ll see SME engagement soar in no time. Gamification is “the application of gaming mechanics to non-gaming environments to make difficult tasks more palatable.” 

Gamification can motivate subject matter experts and promote a knowledge sharing culture

Gamification in learning has been shown to increase engagement by a jaw-dropping 60%

Some of your subject matter experts may be resistant to sharing their knowledge. Or they may simply find it difficult to fit in their schedules. 

You can increase motivation and engagement by making subject matter experts’ actions gamified. For example you can gift them with virtual Badges and Experience Points (XP) whenever they share their knowledge. Then you can use Leaderboards to help them understand their position and value.

This will appeal to their intrinsic and extrinsic motivation which will then lead to increased engagement. Gallup found that engaged employees are 17% more productive, have 41% less absenteeism and generate 21% greater profitability.

Final Words

Subject matter experts are a fantastic way to promote a knowledge-sharing culture. However, it’s important for you to take a look at your organisation first. 

Does it actively promote a knowledge sharing culture? If not, it’s going to be difficult for your subject matter experts to feel comfortable with their new roles. Once that culture is in place the rest is easy.

Seeking out, supporting and championing your subject matter experts is a great way to build and protect your intellectual capital.This is invaluable for your company. Not just in terms of profits, but also for your employees’ progression and wellbeing. 

Do you want to know more about retaining the intellectual capital within your organisation? Download ‘Your Guide to Intellectual Capital’ today!

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