At Work

The importance of true subject matter experts

In this age of information, it is common to come across plenty of folk who are knowledgeable in their fields. With information being accessible from the tip of one’s finger, it is easy to perform a quick search and instantly be rewarded with answers, along with a sense of superiority in terms of knowledge.

However, nothing can replace the true nit and grit one learns from raw experience. This is where subject matter experts (SME) come into play.

An SME has proficiency in his or her subject and guides other professionals on the project to ensure the content is accurate. The proficiency generally comes from education and experience.

An SME is someone who communicates his knowledge of a topic to other professionals within an organisation or institution. They often act as consultants to bodies that need to produce educational courses or publish training material.

Someone in this position may also serve as a resource through the entire process of bringing a product to market, or may simply offer some preliminary information at the start of a new venture. He or she may also take a role in establishing the quality assurance measures.

They should bring real-world examples, best practices, and tricks of the trade that will positively impact your organisation. They should be the go-to resource who helps resolve complex issues. Most importantly, they should be able to hit the ground running once they understand your unique environment and work independently to deliver project tasks.

If a resource is truly a SME, their biggest value will be found in a few key areas:

1. Improved requirements definition

2. Matching project priorities to organisation best practices

3. Placing user needs at the centre of the design process to impact product delivery and product strategy.

So, how does one identify a true SME? Here are a few tips:

1. SMEs have a documented history of working in the area for which they are an expert.

2. SMEs have actually done the work. They’ve rolled up their sleeves throughout their career. Therefore, they not only understand your challenges, but the details within those challenges. They have specified requirements, written test scripts, supported data validation, documented business and conversion processes, and managed critical projects.

3. SMEs understand organisation best practices and can communicate those insights to help you improve your organisation model.

4. SMEs should have special, in-depth knowledge from both a knowledge and IT perspective that when shared with others, significantly enhances performance within the organisation.

5. SMEs understand user needs. When you design a product to meet a need, you’re addressing the problems, concerns, or desires of the people who will utilise it on a regular basis. SMEs know how to meld design to improve user performance.

6. SMEs lower project costs. SMEs deliver project tasks more quickly, more accurately, and more thoroughly than your typical organisation analyst. While they may bill at a higher rate, overall project costs are reduced.

Roles of an SME

SMEs should be at the centre of several core roles. Educational companies, particularly those offering vocational training, may benefit from working with SMEs.

Another significant role for SMEs is in the area of test development: they may work with psychometricians to develop professional licensing exams by making sure the appropriate subject matter is covered in the exam and that the answer key is correct.

Some SMEs are employees of the organisation they work for, and may have a specific role, such as an editor, in the organisation as well. They may also continue to work in their own field of expertise while offering freelance consulting services to various organisations and institutions.

For example, a real estate appraiser might run her own firm while offering SME services to a company that produces appraisal software. That same appraiser might also write and edit books in her field. In doing this, she not only expands her professional network, but she also continues to hone her professional skills and increase her knowledge, increasing her marketability as a consultant.

The contributor, Azizi Ahmad, currently serves the educational studies department of Institut Pendidikan Guru Kampus Bahasa Antarabangsa. To get in touch with Azizi, email