I received this reader note on a very important topic – subject matter experts (SMEs).
Hi Sharlyn. I just started blogging and learning about HR. I was wondering: How do real HR experts think differently from the average/bad ones?
In my opinion, everyone is an expert at something. We are all subject matter experts. Now a challenge exists when 1) a person claims to be an expert in something they know little or nothing about. For instance, I should never claim to be an expert in mowing the lawn. I don’t know how to start the mower. Or 2) others rely upon someone like they are an expert when they’re not. No one should call me about cooking on the grill because even though I’m a foodie, I’m not a grilling expert.
Often we are conditioned to think that if we say we’re an expert that’s being conceited or arrogant. We’re only allowed to accept the expert label if someone else gives it to us and then we’re supposed to hem and haw about it, “Oh me?! Gosh no, I’m no expert.” until someone firmly tells us to stop it.
The truth is we need to get comfortable with being an expert. We need to know what we are an expert at. It’s called knowing what you do well. And we should be able to articulate those things we do well along with what we did to get there. Here’s an example of what someone should be able to say:
I’m an expert at designing training programs. I learned the principles of training design taking coursework at ABC University. I was able to take what I learned in class and immediately apply it in a company project to revamp our existing onboarding program. My work with the onboarding program led me to be selected as the project lead to design the company’s leadership development program. I’m particularly proud of this program because it was recognized by the local professional training association as one of the best leadership initiatives in the state.
Employees need to be able to comfortably say things like this. In today’s workplaces, where everyone is a SME about something, companies should consciously take steps to manage the all-SME workforce.
Organizations can inspire employees to embrace their successes. Employees should be encouraged to discuss their achievements during performance appraisals and when they are being considered for transfers and promotions. It’s also important during conversations about replacement and succession planning.
Employees should share their expertise with others. This is a central part of the knowledge transfer process, whether that sharing takes place informally or during mentoring, coaching or training.
Having more than one expert in a subject is a great thing. The goal should not be to have only one expert in a subject. Multiple experts mean multiple points of view and that’s wonderful for discussion and innovation.
Managers need guidance on how to manage a workforce of experts. They need to know how to manage someone who has more expertise in a subject than they do.
Everyone is an expert. We must work with people who share the same expertise as us and with others who don’t. I can’t help but think if we allowed people to embrace their expert status (versus labeling it a narcissistic behavior) then maybe we wouldn’t have to worry about people claiming to be experts in topics they’re not. Ultimately, it’s all about leveraging your strengths.