Subject Matter Experts: Your Team’s Superpower

Lo Kidd

August 18, 2021

It’s Friday afternoon, you’re wrapping up work for the week, and you decide that this is the weekend you want to hit the trails for some backpacking. But you quickly realize it’s a lot to pull together at the last minute that you don’t usually do – from planning where to go to prepping camp-stove-ready meals. 

Fortunately, you know someone. In fact, you know lots of people! Your friend Jonathan is a backpacking trail expert. Your cousin Sydney is a maven when cooking anything over a Sterno, and your friend Gus is a complete gear guru. Thanks to your friends’ expertise, you don’t have to know all these things yourself. You can simply ask your subject matter experts (SMEs): Jonathan, Sydney, and Gus.

In the same way, your expert friends are clutch to a successful camping trip, SMEs are also key to the success of your business. They’re your superpower.

What is a subject matter expert?

A subject matter expert is the person who has abundant knowledge on a specific topic. Whether that’s a skill, type of knowledge, or a specific job. They have such a deep understanding of their subject that they know it inside and out, from best practices and frameworks to different ways to approach and think about a topic.

SMEs can be anyone – from a political historian to a master chef, a marketing maven to gear guru Gus. They all have in common that they’ve generally developed their area of expertise over a long period of time and have deep knowledge of what they do.

And within your company, you actually have lots of SMEs. Maybe your Senior HR manager, who’s a pro at remote onboarding, comes to mind. Your lead software engineer who’s hacked the best way to build new mobile products is an SME. Same with your marketing director, who’s mastered the art of email campaigns. They’re the go-tos within your company for everything from solving specific problems to helping your business meet new challenges.

When you don’t have the expertise you need in-house, you might need an external SME to help fill in the knowledge gaps. For example, maybe your company wants to streamline your current processes. But no one on your team has that expert knowledge. To avoid using a hodge-podge of process optimization methods you cobble together from the internet, you instead reach out to an SME. In this case, a business process consultant.

Another example of when you might use an external SME is in transitioning to a remote work model. Maybe your company has decided to go fully remote or is exploring a hybrid model and wanting to learn some best practices for rolling it out and staying productive. A productivity SME could help you manage Zoom fatigue and offer tips for keeping your employees engaged and on the same page.

Who in your company is an SME?

But before you go hunting for experts outside your company, take a closer look at your team and the skills they have. Think about it this way: What if everyone on your team was an SME?

Well, we’ve got some news: Everyone is a subject matter expert on something. The key is figuring what that something is (especially when several people share the same role). You can think of this expertise like everyone’s personal superpower. 

Thinking back on our backpacking example, who’s your trail expert, cooking maven, and gear guru? All of these people are essentially just fellow campers. But because they come with different knowledge sets, they take on the responsibilities that best align with their field of expertise. 

Now let’s think about it in the context of your business. Think of one person on your team. What do they bring to the table that they do better than anyone else? Then, wash and repeat. For some people on your team, their superpower will be more obvious. For others, it might take some digging. 

Can’t figure out what someone is the subject matter expert of? Try having this person’s teammates do the digging and report back. Or create an SME self-reflection to help this person figure it out themselves. On this questionnaire, you’d want to ask things like:

  • What are the core responsibilities of your role?
  • Which of these responsibilities do you feel you really excel at? 
  • Are there any responsibilities that only you know how to do? Which ones?
  • What is one aspect of your role that you know more than anyone else?

Once you’ve identified who’s an SME on what, then you can divide and conquer. Just like in our backpacking example, everyone can then show up to your next meeting or project ready to be the go-to resource in their particular area of expertise.

Before we dive into more specifics on uncovering everyone’s expertise, let’s look at a few of the benefits.

Why do you need subject matter experts?

Aside from the pride of being an expert on something, being a subject matter expert makes a lot of sense for your company. And there are two key ways your SMEs can boost your bottom line while helping grow your business.

  1. Increased productivity. Think about it: when you know who’s the expert on what, you don’t waste time doing the research yourself or asking the wrong people. SMEs can all collaborate together, which streamlines communication, makes meetings more productive and clarifies workflows. That way, you spend more time doing what you do best. And as a team, you get more done!
  2. Better documentation. How often have things not gotten done because no one knows who’s responsible for them? Or because only one person knows how to do something and they’re out of office? When you know everyone’s position on the team, you can more easily hold everyone accountable for their turf. And they can create resources to ensure you have the coverage you need when they need a second to breathe on the bench.

In the Trainual app, we call SMEs “subject owners.” They’re the person responsible for keeping everyone up to speed on their expertise through documentation. Meaning, they build out the related training content, manage, and update it. That way, the content actually gets created and stays up to date.

Plus, everyone can see who the subject matter expert behind their training content is. That way, there’s no wasting time asking the wrong person (and possibly getting the wrong answer) or trying to recreate the wheel. Instead, team members can go straight to the subject owner with questions, so only your company’s best practices get spread around.

🔥 Tip: Documenting can also help make sure you’re capturing your company’s tribal knowledge (AKA your best plays). That way, even if your SME decides to leave one day, your business doesn’t come grinding to a halt. And you can keep it all in one place with Trainual. Try for free.

How to become your team’s go-to SME

Here’s the catch: Identifying what you’re the subject matter expert of is just the first step. Because similar to Peter Parker, once you have superpowers, you need to harness that power and figure out how to use it responsibly. 

So, whether you already know your expertise or are looking to nurture your team’s superpowers, here are five steps that can help:

1. Assess your strengths

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to take time to zoom out. Step back and identify the parts of your job you’re really good at and the areas where you could improve. And put those into a list of strengths and weaknesses. 

Maybe you’re excellent at generating and communicating new ideas. But you need some work on your follow-up and attention to detail. Put those on the list! Certain skills and abilities will come more naturally to you than others. That’s normal and exactly what you’re trying to identify here. 

You can also ask your teammates to add strengths and weaknesses they see to your list. In the process, you might also uncover some strengths that have been dormant for a while or ones you didn’t even know you had.

🔥 Tip: For those tasks that don’t come easily or you struggle to do, see if there’s a way to delegate them to a teammate who is better at them. This way, you free up bandwidth for tasks where you’ll make the greatest impact.

2. Clarify your passions

When you’re passionate about what you do, chances are good that you’ll be more motivated to work harder and look for ways to learn and improve. This, of course, is better for everyone.

So, take a look at the strengths on your list. Is there one (or a few) that speaks to you personally or supports your values? Another way you can think about this is: Which of these things would you want to talk about every day?

If you’re in marketing, maybe you love keeping up with the latest trends and platforms. Or maybe you enjoy being strategic and like to spend your free time thinking about the high-level content strategy and how to differentiate your company from the competition. Whatever it is, that’s what you should be focusing on becoming the subject matter expert on.

3. Identify your company’s needs

The sweet spot that subject matter experts operate in is where your passions and strengths meet company goals. 

So, start by identifying your company’s high-level strategic goals. We set these as a company at the beginning of each year at our annual strategic planning session. Then, we create smaller department-level goals each quarter to ensure we achieve those goals by the end of the year. 

Looking at those smaller department goals, which of your skills can be the difference between reaching them and falling short? Is there a knowledge gap you can help fill or a process you could improve? Focus on the areas that align with both the strengths and passions you identified. 

When you have it, make those areas of the business your priority. Meaning, volunteer to take on tasks that align with those strengths and roll up to the larger company goals. And proactively identify potential obstacles wherever possible. This allows you to propose workable solutions and reinforce that you’re the expert (without saying you’re the expert).

4. Keep learning

Keeping a pulse on your industry can help you stay competitive and bring new ideas and perspectives to your team. Because passion and know-how will only get you so far – especially within ever-changing fields like social media marketing. 

The rest is up to how much you keep up with the latest trends and tools. Otherwise, you’ll get left behind. 

So, how are you leveling up your expertise? And know that you don’t need to break the bank on some fancy degree or certification to make that happen (although you can). 

Try subscribing to podcasts or newsletters in your niche, joining Facebook communities, following Twitter threads, or attending free workshops. To find these, search for key phrases related to your expertise. 

For example, if you’re a copywriter, try searching for “copywriting tools” and “SEO best practices” in Google, Reddit, and Twitter. Then, filter through the top results for resources and events that pique your interest. (It’s worth going past the first page of results!)

By doing this, you’ll find a ton of resources in seconds, like the Very Good Copy newsletter and Neil Patel workshops. As well as cutting-edge tools like Frase and Then, block out time to actually read these resources, attend these events, or test these tools. (Roughly an hour a week will do the trick – but feel free to block more time if you have it.)

🔥 Tip: Make sure all your SMEs are leveling up by providing plenty of employee development opportunities. Just be sure your team documents any new knowledge in Trainual, so the rest of your team can benefit from these investments too. Try for free.

5. Always be testing

The flip side of learning is testing. To keep your SME game sharp, you need to know what works and what doesn’t. And know for certain. Because you probably won’t stay an SME for long if you’re not constantly improving.

This means you need proof that your expert processes get reliable results – even as the industry changes. So, when you learn about a new tool or an experimental process that worked for another company, try them out. Just make sure you document the results so you have hard data on why your way is best. 

Going back to the copywriter example, this might mean A/B testing subject lines, switching up where you distribute content, or optimizing a few headlines on your home page. Just be sure that you know how you’re measuring success before you set out. That way, you know what to look for in the results. Not to mention if you’re actually leveling up your expertise. 

Remember, there’s a lot you know that others need to know. You’re already a subject matter expert, whether you realize it or not. And a few simple steps can help you uncover your unique superpower. Making everyone at your company an SME on something will help you grow your business by increasing productivity and improving your company’s documentation. And heck, it might even earn you a few more days off to hit the trails.

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