Identify and Utilize Subject Matter Experts at Work
Knowledge management plays an important role in ensuring that everyone can do their best work, but plenty of things need to come together to have an effective strategy.
You have the buy-in from departments, you’ve been steadily combating knowledge hoarding, and you may even have your eye on knowledge management software. The only thing you’re missing are the subject matter experts.
What are subject matter experts?
Your subject matter expert (also known as an SME) is an authority on something important in your organization. They could be your resident tech wiz, know how to implement and improve processes, or just have a ton of knowledge about a certain field or subject.
Subject matter experts are usually people who have been in their roles for so long that their knowledge more or less comes as second nature. Plenty of managers could fit the bill of being a subject matter expert, but it’s also possible (and even more likely) for employees outside of management to be subject matter experts. Your SMEs could be technical leads, individual contributors, analysts, and more!
Why subject matter experts matter
Your organization is full of talented and capable people, so what’s the point in singling out just one as your resident “go-to” on a subject?
There are some high performers in your org, but they can’t handle every single task in their department. Instead of trying to spread people thin and demand expertise for every subject under the sun, rely on subject matter experts for certain things.
When you have SMEs, you have a reliable source of information on the things that matter the most to your business. Their expertise can help inform new processes, expand into different markets, or focus on the best ways to grow your organization.
One of the best things about subject matter experts is how they can benefit nearly every department or niche you can think of. Marketing can have their SME on all things related to Hubspot. HR can have an SME that knows everything about the right way to on and offboard employees. If there’s an important need for your company, you could find an SME to give you the information and insight you need.
Once you start to utilize SMEs, you can start to witness a positive halo effect throughout your business. Someone who has a true in-depth understanding of things can let you know what you could be missing out on and have ideas on how to make changes. Suddenly there are new and improved processes, ideas for projects, and more efficient employees. And it all happened because you identified the right SMEs.
3 qualities of a subject matter expert
How can you identify subject matter experts when you’re working with so many potential candidates? Don’t just check out the latest performance reviews to see who got the best scores.
Believe it or not, there is a difference between high performers and true subject matter experts at work. Different qualities and traits need to come together to be an effective SME. If you’re starting your search, consider looking at these three important characteristics.
Some organizations want their most trusted SMEs to have years of experience at the company under their belts. Yours may decide that years of experience in a chosen field are more important than how long an employee has been with the company. Other organizations place a lot of value on credentials. Your SME could have a Ph.D., degree, a variety of certifications, or a combination of all three.
It’s always a good idea to go with a mix of both. Remember, simply holding on to a job or having a wall of framed certificates and degrees doesn’t automatically make someone an SME. Use your best judgment, and be sure to consider other positives when you’re making your choice.
We love an SME that’s fully involved at work. These are people who aren’t just knowledgeable about certain subjects, they’re also active participants when they’re on the clock.
Involvement is important at work for everyone, but that’s especially true for subject matter experts. SMEs should love diving into their subjects of expertise, collaborating with their team, and offering a little guidance when it’s needed.
We’re not saying that social butterflies are the only people who can be experts on certain topics at work. Engaged employees aren’t just in the know about what’s happening at work, they’re also able to fill in their own knowledge gaps and help others around them. Those are excellent qualities for employees and SMEs alike!
Your SMEs won’t be working by themselves. If you want to get the most out of your SME you’ll want them to be involved with other employees and on other projects. This is why it’s important to pick someone who’s an effective communicator.
Knowledge is meant to be shared! A subject matter expert that can spread valuable know-how to others will be a great fit for the role.
Any demonstrated expertise in writing, presenting, or giving talks is always a big plus. Talk to managers and teammates to get their take on your potential SME’s work and communication style to get an idea of how they’d work with others.
How to utilize your SME
After your long search for an SME, you’ve finally found the one! Now it’s time to tell them the good news.
“We think you’re so good at your job that we’ve designated you the SME! Everyone is going to rely on you for everything now since you’re our go-to. Get ready to get pulled into more meetings and calls!”
…Doesn’t sound too appealing right? There are right and wrong ways to get the level of buy-in and engagement you want from your identified SMEs. Here’s what you need to know.
Involve, don’t rely
Are you creating a new onboarding program for your SME’s department? Is there a new project on the horizon? Get your SME involved ASAP! Getting them involved from the get-go allows them to add their expertise from day one and be in the know about any expected outcomes.
Your SME will be involved, but remember, you still have managers and other decision-makers. You’re just one priority for your SME, they still have other duties and projects on their plates. Don’t overburden them with tasks better suited for others.
If you want to ensure that you aren’t taking up too much of their time, schedule regular check-ins so you can ensure you’re aware of their current priorities and see how your needs fit into theirs (and feel free to use any of our helpful meeting templates to ensure your meeting runs smoothly).
Acknowledge their efforts
Pay bumps are a great way to show SMEs that you value their hard work, but they're only one way to show appreciation. Be sure to show subject matter experts and others in the organization how much their work matters.
Always give credit where it's due. Let your subject matter experts know the impact of their work and how it’ll help with future initiatives. Let managers know when SMEs have done something noteworthy and spread the word to their team.
Accept their feedback
One of the reasons why you have an SME is so you can get their take on what you’re doing. Sometimes they’re going to think that you’re on the right course, but other times you may not get so lucky.
They might think that this new project shouldn’t be the priority right now. Or maybe they think that it’s time to move on to something completely different.
Differences of opinion can be a good thing when you’re working on new initiatives. They can help you view problems in different ways and come up with innovative solutions. Regardless of what their feedback is, listen to what they have to say.
Document their knowledge
SMEs are already busy enough at work. The last thing they need are more shoulder taps and interruptions to get in the way of a packed schedule.
Remember, you don’t want your subject matter experts to hold their knowledge close to themselves. They should be finding ways to get their expertise into the hands of other employees.
Documentation is an important part of knowledge management. Find a reliable system you can use that makes it easy to document and find important information.