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).
What is a subject matter expert? As the title suggests, an SME is the person with a significant level of expertise in any given field or niche. 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 is that with the booming online course development trends in education there is a need for SMEs in just about every field.1
What Is a Subject Matter Expert?
A subject matter expert is the go-to person that others can turn to for trustworthy 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 an experienced 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 helps make them a valuable part of the team. The same is true for SMEs who work on online and e-learning course development teams. They are the experts who ensure that the learning materials are high-quality, relevant, accurate and up to date.
Though it may seem like they know just about everything there is to know about their field, true subject matter experts won’t hesitate to acknowledge that there is always room to learn more. They are skilled at in-depth research to uncover new information. SMEs know how to find relevant source materials, and can distill the content into digestible chunks for learners.
The Role of an SME in Online Learning
An 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. Depending on the makeup of the team, the SME may have several important roles.
Act as the Main Source for a Specific Subject
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 an SME is working on their own, they will be the point person for all content-related questions and decisions.
Summarize Key Information
An 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. That said, skilled subject matter experts also know when to add certain details in a way that enriches the course material and enhances the learning experience.
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 objectives define what a learner should be able to know and do by the end of a learning experience. SMEs must take care that learning objectives are both reasonable, yet also sufficiently rigorous given the average learner’s education level and prior experience with the material.
Subject matter experts who work with instructional designers will often be asked to review modules, activities and full courses. An 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. These industries can include:2
- 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:3
- Analyzing the company's resource efficiency
- Documenting processes and training
- Explaining technical concepts
- Creating new workstreams to help employees communicate
- Supporting leadership and the company’s mission, vision and values
- Recommending new technology, software and equipment for the company
- Training sales and accounting departments
Examples of When It’s Useful To Be an SME
Whether you intend on becoming a full-time SME consultant or you prefer to become an SME in your current position, you’re likely to find that your credibility and authority on a particular topic comes in handy in various situations. In fact, no matter what your area of expertise is, there is a good chance that it will serve you — and your organization — well at some point. Here are a few hypothetical examples of when it’s useful to be an SME:
- Jodie is an SME in teaching children with learning disorders, such as dyslexia. She’s called in to consult on a curriculum design project. She recommends certain adjustments to the curriculum that make it more accessible to students with learning differences.
- Trish is a full-time teacher, as well as an SME in instructional technology. Her district is thinking of investing in an expensive smart projector system for the classrooms in the high school. She’s asked to examine the smart projector system and assess it in light of the high school’s learning objectives and current curriculum to determine whether it would be a good fit.
- Dan is a high school history teacher and an SME in public speaking. His school would like to encourage students to develop better verbal communication skills. Dan is asked to create an afterschool club that focuses on public speaking.
Become a Subject Matter Expert With These Skills
The best SMEs have skills that make them knowledgeable, collaborative and able to share their expertise in meaningful ways. There are many skills that an SME should possess or be determined to grow to positively impact a learning and development project.4
Subject Matter Expertise
An SME must be an expert in their field. This means they know the theories and have practical experience. They need sufficient hands-on experience in their field to enable them to know how to solve problems and where to go to find answers to questions related to their field.
Speaking, Listening and Writing Skills
An SME must be able to explain often complex information in a way that is accessible to a diverse audience. 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 unexpected obstacles, whether due to aggressive timelines, budgetary constraints 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 or the project itself might scale back on the amount of content that 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. Creative problem-solving is a must-have skill for all subject matter experts, regardless of field or niche.
An 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. An SME should be able to prioritize and stay focused on competing tasks and projects across employers.
Even when an SME is acting as a full-time consultant, time management is critical. Consultants must often juggle many different clients, all of whom may have ongoing projects at any given time. SME consultants must be able to give sufficient attention to each ongoing project, and so time management skills are crucial.
How To Become a Subject Matter Expert
Now that you know the answer to the question, What is a subject matter expert? you may be curious about how to become a subject matter expert. This career path would require you to establish yourself as an expert in your field. There are a few steps to take to get started.
1. Find Your Niche
You should have authority and practical experience in a specific field to be considered an SME. You might have broad area expertise, say in education, but you could become an SME in e-learning when you earn an online education degree. Or, you might be a human resources representative. Finding your specialty area can make you more marketable as an 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 credentials also mean you have participated in a fair number of training sessions in the field and know firsthand what a high-quality learning experience should involve.
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 having teaching experience could be beneficial. Teaching a continuing education class in your field or getting certified as a trainer through a professional organization will help you practice the SME skills you will need. These include assessing learners, distilling ideas into accessible lessons and identifying 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 as an SME on the side, you can pursue 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 stability and allow you to work on more projects. No matter which direction you take toward becoming an 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 your professional connections 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 an 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 an SME in education, consider earning a degree in specialized areas such as autism spectrum disorders or curriculum and instruction. At Grand Canyon University, the online master’s in education programs will teach you the skills and knowledge needed to pursue a career as an expert practitioner and a subject matter expert. Fill out the form on this page to learn how you can join our collaborative online learning community.
1Raeburn, A. (2022, July 5). What Is a Subject Matter Expert? Asana. Retrieved on July 20, 2023.
2Herrity, J. (2023, July 20). What Is a Subject Matter Expert? (With 5 Steps To Become One). Indeed Career Guide. Retrieved on July 20, 2023.
3U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, November 16). What Training and Development Specialists Do. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved June 12, 2023.
4Indeed Editorial Team. (2023, March 23). Subject Matter Expert Skills (How To Improve and Highlight). Indeed Career Guide. Retrieved on July 20, 2023.
Approved by the assistant vice president of GCU Marketing on Aug. 7, 2023.
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.