What Is a Subject Matter Expert? (Plus How to Become One)
By Indeed Editorial Team
Published 13 November 2022
The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.
If you're considering a career in business development, you might become a subject matter expert (SME). These business experts specialise in a specific part of a business or subject and offer guidance. Understanding the job and its duties and requirements can help you determine if you want to pursue this career and what steps you might take to get started. In this article, we explain what a subject matter expert is, what their primary duties are, explore the skills they require and show you how to become an SME.
What is a subject matter expert?
A subject matter expert (SME) is a person who is well-versed in a specific subject regarding business, business practices or a field of scientific study. For example, a copywriting company might hire SMEs for international content to ensure correct localisation for different regions. SMEs perform many duties, but their main duty is to provide helpful guidance in their area of expertise to benefit either their clients or their employer. Many industries hire SMEs, including:
Human resource management
Information technology (IT)
Duties of an SME
SMEs have various duties, depending on the industry they work in. Here are some common examples that apply to most SMEs:
Analysing internal processes for efficiency
A business SME might analyse the internal processes of an organisation to monitor for efficiency and productivity for each internal department. SMEs can gather crucial data on these internal processes using various tools, which they then review with the organisation's leadership and offer potential solutions. For example, an SME might analyse the organisation's marketing department and suggest a budget cut for the department to refocus costs and reduce unnecessary spending.
Creating documentation on specialised internal processes
SMEs can also help organisations create internal documentation on specialised processes, so they have a written record for analysis or training purposes. For example, an SME might help a manufacturer create training materials for its production machinery, offering insight on how to word the documents for readability and consistency. They might also advise the organisation on how to make the training process more efficient by using digital documentation or training tools, which the SME can instruct them on using.
Making technical concepts simpler
Since SMEs are the experts in their fields and specialisations, they can offer a unique service to organisations in the form of simplifying complex technical terms and information. SMEs can read technical documents and explain those processes in simple terms so that everyone understands them. For example, an SME might interpret a manual for a piece of production machinery, showing the production manager and maintenance crews how the machine works.
Related: What Is Business Development?
Encouraging more consistency in internal processes
SMEs also work to help organisations create greater consistency in their core internal processes. This can mean replicating behaviours or processes across different departments, creating new systems to monitor and enforce standards or identifying the need for new standards. For example, an SME that specialises in food safety and production might help a food manufacturer create replicable food safety and washout processes for each machine to help enforce proper allergen washouts so that everyone understands their importance.
Supporting leadership in the organisation and aligning values and strategy
SMEs help support the organisation's leadership and align organisation values and strategic visions. They might advise the executives of an organisation on how to reposition it to meet its goals, how to better embody its core values and how to create a stronger, more consistent strategic vision. A strong strategic vision and core values are both crucial for an organisation's success because they help guide its conduct and define how it intends to reach its goals while remaining professional and respected by the public.
Recommending upgrades in technology infrastructure, software and equipment
SMEs often advise organisations on how and why upgrades in technology infrastructure are necessary. If an organisation is behind in the digital space, the SME might analyse its needs, explore different upgrade options, then present these options to the leadership. They also compare the processes and tools a company's direct competitors use to excel in the industry and help explain the need to adopt new tech for the business. Some SMEs help businesses build new digital infrastructure by placing orders and providing leadership to the company's IT team during the upgrade.
Assisting in sales growth and account management
SMEs also help companies grow their operations, improve customer relations and assist with account management. They can interact directly with customers or advise the company on its policies for interacting with customers and managing accounts. They might also help companies keep better customer records and show them how to use customer analytical data to create more detailed and useful customer profiles to improve marketing and business activities, promoting growth.
How to become an SME
Professionals may follow these steps to become SMEs:
1. Choose a niche
If you want to become an SME, it's important to know what you want to specialise in. Since you're training to become an expert in a particular field, specificity is important. Instead of choosing a broad field, like software development, consider niches within software development, like financial software, artificial intelligence or mobile applications. The more specific you are, the more you can narrow your focus and differentiate yourself as an expert. This differentiation may help you get more jobs since you're qualified to handle very specific needs.
2. Get educated in your subject
Once you determine the niche you want to work in as an SME, it's important to pursue higher education in that subject. Higher education helps familiarise you with the subject matter you plan to advise on and also provides you with credentials that can help you find work. Start with a bachelor's degree, as this is the basis for most advanced subjects and a primary qualification for many subject matter jobs. Once you complete a bachelor's degree, consider pursuing a master's or doctorate to truly master your subject matter and become an authority in the field.
3. Gain subject experience
Experience is vital to becoming an SME because it helps solidify your classroom knowledge and provides a professional context for that knowledge. While you're earning a degree, try to find jobs in the niche you're specialising in. You can pursue paid opportunities or other opportunities, like internships, so you have some experience when you graduate. After graduation, you may want to work in your specialisation for a few years before trying to become an SME, so you can master the job and its accompanying skills.
4. Be an authority
To become a great SME, it's important to be an authority in your field. This means mastering each concept and learning as new concepts arise. You may also want to publish articles, books or guides on your subject matter to further position yourself as an authority in that realm. You can also host workshops, seminars or other events to help expand your audience and capture the attention of other experts in your field. By expanding your professional network, publishing your work and mastering your skill set, you can truly position yourself as one of the few experts in your niche.
Tips for becoming an SME
Here are some tips for becoming an SME:
Focus on networking. Networking is important for establishing a reputation as an expert. Attend networking events and make connections in your industry to learn about new job opportunities, stay aware of industry news and gain references for your services.
Learn more and be adaptable. Becoming an expert requires an attitude for adaptation since industries can change over time. Practise adaptability and always learn more information about your specialisation and expand your skill set.
Consider an advanced degree. An advanced degree like a master's can be a good way to solidify yourself as an expert and align your name with that expertise in the industry. Consider a master's or doctorate to expand your knowledge and skill set and potentially your job opportunities.
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