Improving team contributions

Best characteristics of subject matter experts

Back in the day, my manager at the Fortune 500 company I worked for handed off an assignment to me, a complicated piece of collateral on a topic that I knew absolutely nothing about. I started to inquire how to get going when the manager stopped me and said in a very nonchalant manner, “Just talk to Bill about this, he’s the… SME.”

“What? Who?” It sounded like she had sneezed as ‘a smeee’ poured out of her mouth.

“Bill,” she said, pointing to the other side of the office, presumably at Bill’s desk. “He’s your SME, your subject matter expert for this project.”

Ah, yes. Subject. Matter. Expert. Or simply, SME (pronounced as ‘smee’ for those who don’t know). It is, as I have come to decide, possibly the greatest title a person can have. I mean, who doesn’t want to be called an expert? The title, supposedly first coined at AT&T (this I discovered in the Urban Dictionary, but unverifiable, for what it is worth), can mean a variety of things, but usually it means exactly what it implies. The title-holder is an expert in the as-named subject you’re researching.

Bill wasn’t the first SME I needed to complete an assignment, he was just the first person I worked with to have the unofficial “official” title bestowed upon him. Subject matter expert. And let me say, Bill was a pretty good SME—my project was ultimately a success because of him.

Throughout the course of my career, I’ve collaborated with many, many SMEs. Sometimes I didn’t know I was with a SME, other times I knew exactly who and what they were. The best ones always had the same traits, the stuff that makes their expertise jump off the page, or at the very least, flow in a coherent manner through the distinguishable disguise, ultimately ending up as valuable scribbles in my notebook.

The characteristics and qualities of the best SMEs include:

  • Patience. If the SME doesn’t have the right temperament, your elementary questions may rankle them. If you see an edginess as you ask your necessary questions, it’s a good bet your SME isn’t one of the best.
  • Wisdom. Look, all SMEs should have some special kind of wisdom, but sometimes SMEs have far-extending knowledge, translated into wisdom. When you see it, snatch up every extra tidbit of information you can get.
  • Interruptible. Can you interrupt the SME at the most inopportune time when they are in the middle of something else? An excellent SME will drop whatever they are doing, even if you are over-bearing, and help.
  • Researched. On the rare occasion that your SME doesn’t know the answer to a question, will they volunteer to find the right and needed information? The best SMEs not only do this, but they’ll also apologize for not knowing the info on the spot.
  • Prescience. Sometimes they know exactly what you’re going to ask, and when you’ll ask it. Call it a mystical quality, a special talent—that’s why they’re SMEs, after all. Just go with it.

While these qualities are indispensable—not every SME has all of them—it’s important to plan and be ready before you have the initial meeting. In short, be prepared for your SME meetings. When the SME sees that you’re not just waiting to be spoon-fed answers and information, they’ll usually give you even more.

With that in mind, I always adhere to the following list and it has always helped.

  1. Do a little research. If your SME sees that you’ve done some upfront prep work on the topic, they’ll be inclined to help more.
  2. Find out about the SME’s regular job. Try to understand how much time they are giving you in the context of their normal duties.
  3. Determine how much help you’ll need upfront. No one likes to be constantly badgered, even the best of SMEs. If you can get all of your info in one meeting, do it.
  4. Don’t contradict the SME. Remember, they’re the expert, not you.

And finally, always follow the golden rule: Be respectful, be polite.

The Land of SMEs

All of which brings us to—where else?—Onspring. We are loaded with a variety of SMEs; from our developers to our customer support experts to the sales and training associates, Onspring has all of the bases covered when the need for an expert arises. The best thing about our SMEs is that not only do they enhance and improve all things Onspring, they have the innate ability to make their associates better. That attribute, rare in most organizations, extends throughout all aspects of the company, and the overall result is that our SMEs spawn more SMEs.

If you need GRC advice, information about vendor management, incident, audit or contract management, Onspring can help.

A final note about Bill, and SMEs in general—he was overjoyed at the success of my project. Why? Because in a way, it was his, too. That’s another great thing about prominent SMEs—your accomplishments are also theirs.

About the author

Evan Stos Vice President Customer Experience Onspring GRC Software

Evan Stos
Vice President at Onspring
15 years GRC experience