Everyone is an SME

One of the recurring themes on my blog is a call for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to share their knowledge with the wider organisation.

In my view, this isn’t just an expectation: it’s an obligation. Organisations whose people embrace collaboration will prosper, while those who don’t will be left behind.

While the stereotype of an SME is a Sheldon-like character with superhuman intellect, the convenient truth is that we’re regular folk.

Of course the level of expertise in a particular domain will vary across a population, and the label of “expert” will naturally be assigned to those who have the most. However, it would be a folly to assume that the eggheads are the only ones who have anything to contribute.

You see, everyone is an expert in something. When humans work in a domain day in, day out, they familiarise themselves with it; they grow to understand its subtleties; they think up ideas to improve it; and they recognise the difference between business reality and academic fallacy when other people talk about it.

So while they might not be experts in the entire domain, they will be experts in parts thereof.

A businessman at his desk in the office.

Take Sam for example. He’s an administrator in the back office of a financial services organisation.

He’s no expert in superannuation, but he sure knows how to process a unit switch – even complicated ones. He processes dozens of them every day.

So when you need someone to record a unit switching tutorial, who you gonna call? It sure as hell won’t be Carl the CFP, or Mary the MBA, or anyone else with an acronym after their name. It will be Sam, the unit switching expert.


When we view the concept of subject matter expertise through this lens, we realise our roles as learning professionals need to change:

  • We need to stop deifying the few. This creates an “us & them” mentality which – even if affectionate – discourages the participation of the mortals.
  • We need to empower the many to share their expertise. In the modern workplace, this will involve social technology.
  • We need to cultivate a participatory culture. The best technology in the world is useless in an organisation with inhibitive policies and attitudes. Tools are meant to be used.

So unless they are doe-eyed novices, all the employees in your organisation have knowledge and skills to share. And if they don’t or won’t, let them find alternative employment with your competitors.

9 thoughts on “Everyone is an SME

  1. As L&D professionals it should be our job to collate and curate their (everyones) knowledge to make it assessable and not just in courses. I have coined it O2 – Organisational Organisation. The better your “oxygen” levels the better you are making quality information available. As per your post everyone has information that could be handy we just need to scale how we catch it.

  2. Hi Ryan
    Great post and agree with all you say. In my experience the culture of an organisation is often the main reason people do not share their expertise & knowledge more readily. This and the fact that orgs are still clinging to the “you are what you know” mentality rather than “you are what you share” ….performance management and reward & recognition policies also need to change to reward these behaviours so that those that do add value for others and share what they know are rewarded and revered for doing it. I agree social technologies have a big part to play and L&D have an even greater role in helping orgs shape the technology landscape and build capability and confidence in using the tools. L&D need to role model the behaviours themselves and in turn educate others and raise awareness. The days of the knowledge hoarders are numbered!

  3. Wise is the executive who seeks the wisdom offered by the hands-on folks, those on the front lines of customer interraction, product development or creation, or delivery systems.

  4. Super post Ryan. Unfortunately I’m sad to say I’ve been on the receiving end of ‘organisational long sightedness’ i.e. can’t see what’s under their noses!

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