Subject matter experts (SMEs) have specialized knowledge in a specific area of expertise. In project management, you can use subject matter experts for estimation processes (such as expert judgment) or if you need a highly qualified opinion. Learn more about subject matter experts, how they work, and when it’s time to bring one in.
With access to endless knowledge on the internet, it seems like the modern world is filled with generalists. But there are still individuals who choose to focus all of their attention on one field, developing a deep understanding of a single topic. Many of these people become subject matter experts (SMEs). SME knowledge is thorough and detailed, usually gained through years of experience or research.
In project management, subject matter experts can help you to make expert judgements to estimate the costs, resources, or even timeline of large-scale initiatives. We’ll break down exactly what a subject matter expert is, and when it’s time to bring them into your project.
A subject matter expert (SME) is someone with specialized knowledge in a specific area. Often, their competencies are developed through years of on-the-job experience and education in their field. It’s not enough to just be an experienced person in your role to be considered a subject matter expert. They’re often life-long learners who specialize in one unique aspect of their job.
For example, you can be a subject matter expert specifically on using the Agile methodology for software development. A software engineer who’s worked in a variety of methodologies and never focused on one specific kind can be a skilled developer, but they would not be considered a subject matter expert.
SMEs can be in-house employees whose roles center in a particular area, or consultants you bring in for one specific project, idea, or objective.
In general, you can use subject matter experts for:
To develop training materials for a new staff training program
Industry-specific subjects, such as bringing in expert witnesses for a trial
Your subject matter expert should know what they’re doing. In theory, you won’t need to hand-hold or assist them with their work. After all, that’s why they’re here. To be sure your SME is on track, make sure they’re following some or all of these responsibilities. After you relay the necessary details and provide them with current resources, your SME should:
Request and review information regarding the problem or project they’re responsible for.
Analyze data, reports, and documentation until they have a full understanding of the details for this specific project.
Translate information into an easier to understand format that can be shared with stakeholders and used for implementing their advice.
Assume a particular role if the subject matter expert was hired as a contractor to develop a new program, process, or position in the company.
Get leadership buy-in based on their skilled knowledge and expertise.
Becoming a subject matter expert takes years of dedication and focus. It’s simple in theory but extremely difficult in practice. You need to focus on your subject matter until you develop the skills necessary to be considered an expert—and there are no shortcuts. The skills and knowledge you need to learn will vary widely depending on the particular job and industry, with some taking more time than others. For example, a SME who is giving medical advice will need more experience and schooling than a subject matter expert who develops strategies for a marketing team.
After you gain the necessary knowledge to be considered an expert, start sharing it with others. Sign up for conferences, speaking engagements, or consulting jobs—basically, anywhere you will be seen as an authority. You can even start sharing on social media, creating a YouTube channel, or developing a presence on LinkedIn to gain more exposure.
Subject matter experts come in all formats for every industry. Here are a few examples to show the breadth and depth of possible SME roles:
Social media experts: A social media SME has more specific knowledge than just understanding how to create a social strategy or engage an audience. Instead, this SME would target a specific aspect of social media, such as an Instagram strategy for small eCommerce business accounts.
Project managers: Project management is a hugely varied role. Essentially, if you manage projects, you’re a project manager. But SME project managers are focused on specific industries and areas of work—like project managers for billing in healthcare technology companies.
Consultants: Like project managers, consultants can be brought in to develop a new program. For example, if the human resources department is looking to launch a diversity and inclusion program, they might bring in a SME to guide them in best practices and ensure that they’re on track.
Subject matter experts can be helpful, but they have some limitations. For one thing, if they’re a consultant, they won’t have the same level of institutional knowledge as in-house experts. This is especially important if they’re working on your product or service. For example, if a SME is assisting with software development but they don’t have a good understanding of the product. To combat this, look for SMEs internally first—especially for high-impact projects that rely on specific knowledge about your organization.
Subject matter experts also run the risk of getting tunnel vision. It can be harder for them to see the bigger picture because they’re so laser-focused on their topic. Their ability to target one single aspect of their craft means they might have less-inclusive results. To combat this, be sure to pair your SMEs with other team members who are good at asking broad questions and challenging results.
You’re already an expert in your product or service, but sometimes you need help from those who are experts in theirs. Using subject matter experts will help you uplevel your projects so your work can have even more impact.