How To Become a Subject Matter Expert
Online course and curriculum development requires a team of dedicated and talented people. To create e-learning content, an instructional designer is sometimes supported by a team of writers, producers and technologists.
However, no e-learning team would be complete without a subject matter expert (SME) who is the person with the most expertise about the topic. SMEs can come from all walks of life. Medical courses might use doctors as SMEs, while a course on Shakespeare might rely on a high school English teacher.
People with niche skill sets, and even those with broad talents, might wonder how to become a subject matter expert to share their knowledge. The good news for them is that with the booming online course development trends in education there is a need for SMEs in just about every field.
What Is a Subject Matter Expert
A subject matter expert is the person everyone goes to for more information about a topic. In an office, that might be a team leader or a project manager. In a factory, it might be the safety supervisor. At an elementary school, it might be a veteran teacher or a curriculum coach.
SMEs are usually easy to spot in the workplace. They are the people who are always busy answering questions, giving presentations and solving problems. Their expertise makes them extremely in-demand. That is no different for SMEs who work on online and e-learning course development teams. They are the “go-to” people who ensure the learning materials are high-quality, relevant and up-to-date.
Though it may seem like they know just about everything there is to know about their field, subject matter experts are also really great at research and using resources to find the information they do not know. They are usually people who know a lot about a topic, can find relevant source materials and can distill the content into manageable chunks for learners. They gain all of these skills through experience in the field and practice teaching or training others.
The Role of a SME in Online Learning
A SME working in e-learning will have several responsibilities depending on the size of the team, other members of the team, and the needs of the course. Subject matter experts are usually paired with instructional designers and graphics designers. In some cases, though, instructional designers are also SMEs, and play both roles of outlining teaching points and designing learning experiences. No matter the makeup of the team, the SME has several important roles.
Act as the Main Source of Subject Information
The main role of the SME is to be the expert on the topic of the learning material. They will direct the team to the most important pieces of information. When larger courses are being developed, multiple SMEs may share the role. When a SME is working on their own, they will be the point person for all content-related questions.
Summarize Key Information
A SME’s expertise allows them to define the most important topics within a subject. This ensures that instructional designers and course writers do not get bogged down in minute details about topics that are not relevant to learners today.
Create Learning Objectives
The SME can use their understanding of a topic to work with the learning designers to create lesson and course objectives. These are the statements that define what a learner should be able to know and do by the end of a learning experience.
Subject matter experts who work with instructional designers will often be asked to review modules, activities and full courses. A SME reviews the material, offers feedback and suggestions, points the team to appropriate resources and checks the content against intended outcomes to ensure there are no gaps in the learning experience.
Subject Matter Expert Tasks in Other Fields
SMEs are not just used in educational content development. Many industries seek out subject matter experts to share their knowledge and teach skills in easy to understand ways.
- Information technology
SMEs might be asked to solve a specific problem within the company or to apply their experience to a challenge a team is facing.
In these experiences, SMEs act as consultants and might complete the following tasks:1
- Analyzing the company's resource efficiency
- Document processes and training
- Explain technical concepts
- Create new workstreams to help employees communicate
- Support leadership and the company’s mission, vision and values
- Recommend new technology, software and equipment for the company
- Train sales and accounting departments
Skills of Highly Effective SMEs
The best SMEs have skills that make them knowledgeable, collaborative and able to share their expertise in meaningful ways. There are many skills that a SME should possess or be determined to grow to positively impact a learning and development project.
Subject Matter Expertise
A SME must be an expert in their field. This means they know the theories and have practical experience. They have been a practitioner for long enough to know how to solve problems and where to go to find answers to questions related to their field.
Speaking, Listening and Writing Skills
A SME must explain topics to people. They will likely be asked to write learning objectives and are often asked to write full texts on a topic. They must also have excellent listening skills in order to collaborate with the full course development team.
E-learning projects often run into problems, whether due to aggressive timelines, low budgets or shifting priorities. As such, SMEs should be flexible and able to adapt to changes in the scope of the work. They may need to take on more responsibility in a project if they are able or the project itself might scale back or change how much content will be included in a course or training module.
Many SMEs are not trained teachers. They do not always know the jargon used when creating learning materials and online courses. But, because of their expertise in their field, they are able to find the right way to approach the work and share information without overwhelming the learners.
A SME is usually employed in their field of expertise. When they work on e-learning projects they are brought in as consultants, often while still doing their day job. This split time requires SMEs to manage their time well to meet deadlines and keep to the project timeline. A SME should be able to prioritize and stay focused on competing tasks and projects across employers.
Establish Yourself as a SME
People who want to become a subject matter expert should establish themselves as experts in their fields. SMEs are very rarely new to a field and gaining experience and expertise does not happen quickly. If you are wondering to become a subject matter expert, there are a few ways to get started.
1. Find Your Niche
You should have authority and practical experience in a specific field to be considered a SME. You might have broad area expertise, say in education, but you could become a SME in e-learning when you earn an online education degree. Or you might be a human resources representative. Finding your specialty area will make you more marketable as a SME.
2. Get Certified
Certificates, degrees and advanced training programs in specialty areas are often the hallmarks of a capable SME. They show that you are a lifelong learner with the drive to delve into advanced topics in your field. These types of certifications also mean you have participated in a fair number of training sessions in the field and know what a good learning experience should be.
3. Share Your Skills
Use your social media profiles like LinkedIn and Twitter to establish your knowledge. Becoming a thought leader in a field will help people identify you as a subject matter expert. Start a blog or write articles for an industry publication on topics that interest you. When e-learning producers are looking for SMEs they will be able to find your work and see what you have to offer.
4. Teach a Class
SMEs do not have to be teachers, but the experience does not hurt, either. Teaching a community class in your field or getting certified as a trainer through a professional organization will help you practice the SME skills you will need, such as assessment, distilling ideas into small topics and understanding the best delivery methods for different learners.
How To Land a Job as a Subject Matter Expert
If it is something you want to do full-time, you can set up your own business related to consulting in your field of expertise. If you want to continue to work in your field and act a SME on the side, you can do this as a consultant.
Some human resources and learning and development teams hire full-time SMEs. These roles may be more difficult to find, but could offer more security and allow you to work on more projects. No matter which direction you take toward becoming a SME, you will need to showcase your skills by doing the following:
- Build a portfolio sharing your expertise
- Revise your resume to highlight your niche skills
- Network with organizations that need SMEs in your field
- Share content online and connect with other SMEs
- Search for and apply to SME job postings
- Let people know you are looking for SME roles
When you get your SME interview, be ready to work through possible case studies, review current courses and offer feedback, write objectives, collaborate with a team on a mock project and teach a short lesson. Interviewers will be looking for a SME that works well with the training and development teams, can explain technical and difficult concepts to a lay audience and offers reasonable revision ideas for content.
If you are interested in becoming a SME in education, consider earning degrees in specialized areas such as autism spectrum disorders or student affairs. At Grand Canyon University, the master’s in education online programs provide you with the skills and knowledge needed to become an expert practitioner and a subject matter expert.
1 Retrieved from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, What Training and Development Specialists Do, in April 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.
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