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How Do I Become a Subject Matter Expert?

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  • Written By: Gregory Hanson
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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A subject matter expert, or SME, is an individual with a great deal of skill in some particular and specific field. In order to become a subject matter expert, a man or woman must amass that personal storehouse of field-specific skill and experience. In most cases, subject matter experts work as part of larger teams, often in fields related to education, software development, or consumer service. Anyone hoping to become a subject matter expert should develop his or her ability to work collaboratively as part of a team. In certain technical fields, a subject matter expert may be a person with exemplary knowledge of the technical tools and requirements for a given project, and such experts need advanced and specialized skills.

Typically, subject matter experts are brought in to provide area-specific knowledge to teams with broad technical skills. Such experts are frequently employed to develop educational courses. A trained team of specialists in pedagogy and evaluation builds the framework of the courses, but subject matter experts are employed to provide the specific information and objectives within that larger educational framework. Anyone planning to be a subject matter expert of this variety should focus on acquiring mastery of skills that might be useful to such a development team. These skills can range from business law and practices to foreign languages and customs.

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Candidates who already possess expert-level skill should cast a net broadly when looking for work as subject matter experts. Experts in business and technical fields are employed in many different places, but there is work for experts in more esoteric fields as well. Corporations employ experts to produce training programs to allow executives to work more effectively with colleagues from different cultures. The United States Army employs subject matter experts in anthropology and cultural studies to aid in relations with local peoples in Afghanistan.

The ability to collaborate effectively is crucial for subject matter experts. While not always necessary, training and experience in effective communication and teamwork strategies can prove helpful. This is especially true for a candidate hoping to become a subject matter expert in a corporate environment where certain communication skills and strategies are known and used by all members of a team or firm.

In some technical fields, a subject matter expert may be the member of a team with the greatest skill with certain hardware or software systems used in the design process. These experts must possess the same superlative skill as anyone else hoping to become a subject matter expert. Technical training and practical experience are typically both needed to become this sort of expert.

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umbra21
Post 3

@pastanaga - That might be true for some science experts, because there is so much that could be known that it's unlikely anyone could know most of it.

But if you're talking about someone who is, say, a subject matter expert on working as a policeman, they are going to expect that you do know most things off the top of your head, because you will have experienced them in the field.

pastanaga
Post 2

@irontoenail - I think the way the modern schooling system works is that most people end up being generalists to some extent before they pick a particular subset of information and become an expert on that.

You would have to know quite a bit about insects in general in order to study ants, for example. It does depend on how general you want your knowledge to be, however. You might not know very much about ecology in general if you've studied entomology, for example.

But often when someone wants an expert opinion, they don't expect you to know everything right away. They just want to know that you know how to find the answer.

irontoenail
Post 1

I think you should also make a decision whether or not you're going to be a generalist or a topic expert when planning to develop this kind of expertise. A person who is an expert on insects is not necessarily going to be as knowledgeable about ants as an expert on ants. But they will know more about other kinds of insects. If you are planning to be a consultant, it might be better to be a generalist in some fields, as it's more likely that you will be called on to know a lot about a few things, rather than everything about a single thing.

On the other hand, if you are passionate about ants, there will be some occasions where being an expert on ants, rather than insects in general, will be the more useful qualification.

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