Super SMEs

It’s March, and Dick Vitale’s “three ‘S’” man is “super, scintillating, and sensational” on the basketball court. In R2O, liaisons should be subject-matter experts, but what attributes characterize a subject-matter expert (SME)? Should they exemplify the three ‘Ses’?

Above all, it is important to recognize that a SME is designated relative to the environment in which he/she operates, and that there are multiple levels of expertise within a subject matter. Grandparents likely view their grandchildren as SMEs when it comes to performing certain tasks on the computer, but not all grandchildren are lead developers at Apple, Facebook, or Microsoft, where true SMEs in computer science work. When it comes to the latest technology, grandchildren have more expertise than their grandparents, but not as much as someone who performs a technical function as part of a job “day in and day out”. And for their role in troubleshooting their grandparents’ computer, grandchildren do not need a higher level of expertise that comes from formal education or specialized interests; they have experience as part of their daily lives.

Thus, SMEs must, at a minimum, have some routine experience in the subject matter where they claim expertise. Generally, greater expertise is correlated with greater experience over time, but that may not always be the case. If experience is not coupled with additional learning, past experiences may become stale relative to the subject matter, since most areas, especially in the realm of scientific disciplines, are not static, but instead evolve.

For subject matters in established fields and disciplines, approximately ten years of experience is necessary to earn the SME designation through gaining the requisite base knowledge of a subject, and developing deep insight that only comes from prolonged critical thinking on the facets of the subject. In some newer subject areas, related to technology, for example, the amount of experience is relative to the complexity and maturity of the concept. It is also relative to the number of people involved. However, SMEs are generally not judged on the percentage of knowledge they possess in a certain area (with more people, there is usually heightened production of new knowledge), but instead the amount of knowledge they possess and how they apply it.

SMEs may also have formal education, but credentials are not a substitute for experience. An advanced degree is representative of comprehension of an academic matter at a specific point in time. In addition, the academic areas covered by most advanced degrees are fields instead of the smaller subdisciplines and, smaller yet, subject areas. For example, an advanced degree in meteorology does not necessarily confer expertise in the subdiscipline of radar meteorology or the subject area of hydrometeor classification. That is not to say, however, that a thesis or dissertation on a certain subject area does not put an individual on a path to become a SME. It certainly will, especially as others in the field recognize the contribution, which can provide a good springboard for a career.

The best SMEs are not only perpetual learners that seek to advance a subject matter with their own contributions, but also teachers that seek to inspire others. SMEs must be both effective at communication and instruction. Both skills require an elevated degree of comprehension. Ideally, a SME should be authentic in how they convey their message and original in their content. Arguably, a SME never presents a different SME’s content with little or no modification. SMEs exemplify their nature through teaching and developing others in the subject matter. Simply put, a good teacher is viewed as an expert, but, without teaching, the possession of knowledge is only assumed from a presumed SME’s education and experience.

To summarize, a super SME:

  • Is aware of their personal knowledge relative to others involved in the subject matter;
  • Has longstanding experience in the subject matter of their expertise, generally ten or more years;
  • May have formal education in a field or discipline related the subject matter of their expertise;
  • Demonstrates critical thinking and problem-solving skills related to the subject matter of their expertise;
  • Is recognized by their colleagues as such; and
  • Continuously learns and seeks to teach and develop others in the subject matter with authenticity and originality.

In other words, a SME is smart, super, scintillating, and sensational.