3 criteria to selecting the perfect subject matter experts

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One of the keys to successfully sharing knowledge within your organisation is how you select subject matter experts. Whomever you choose will have a reasonably large impact on not just what knowledge is shared, but how it is shared. As a result, its critical to make a wise choice! Sometimes, in small teams or organisations, the choice of an expert is obvious (or even limited to a single person). In larger organisations, finding an expert can be harder – they are often unknown to human resources management or learning and development teams.

So the choice of an expert needs thought and management. In particular, successful knowledge sharing experts tend to have three common characteristics. Let’s begin with the first characteristic.

Select subject matter experts with…Expertise

Your experts obviously need to have expertise in the topic! However, this is not always as obvious as it first sounds. The ‘expertise’ your expert has should be…

  • Current and relevant, not out-dated. Their expertise needs to be used by current and future generations of staff, not the past. Some experts became experts before significant changes may have developed in your industry. This doesn’t just mean IT. Demographic, market and behavioural changes in your industry can reduce the use of previous expertise. You need experts who have expertise in how the topic will existing in the future.
  • An acquired skill, not an inherent talent. Ideally, your experts have expertise which they can transfer. Sometimes you have experts who are great at a topic due to some inherent talents – physical, personality or experience based – which are almost impossible for others to copy. Your expert’s success with the topic is due to unique characteristics of that expert, not to their process, insight or skills.
  • Diverse and well tested, not isolated. Ideally, your expert has a wide range of experience in your topic. They have used the topic over a decent period of time or in many different scenarios. So their expertise is flexible enough to be used by many other people, and not reliant on a certain set of conditions.

The best expertise can be replicated by others. We don’t want expertise which is reliant upon another condition – historical situations, inherent talent or isolated conditions. The ideal is expertise which is easy to transfer and useful in the future.

Select subject matter experts with…Time

Your experts need to have time to capture their knowledge.

Depending on what you are asking of them, this could be 30 minutes to six hours. It’s unlikely to be a major amount of time and things can usually be done in parts, but its not trivial either.

So you should be looking for experts who aren’t facing other time management problems. They should be…

  • Established in their role, not just starting a new role and trying to get on top of things
  • Well-resourced so they can readily do their job and not already feel under pressure
  • Not undertaking too many other internal requests or non-job related tasks
  • In a relatively quieter time of the year for their role (if that exists)
  • Available for several weeks and not disappearing (and trying to get ready for) holidays

So we want experts who wont feel under too much pressure to devote some of their time to this knowledge capture process. Experts who are already being asked to do too much may view this request with annoyance.

Select subject matter experts with…Attitude

Some people are great at sharing. Some aren’t. We need experts who don’t mind sharing. Now, in theory, your organisation cultural should be rewarding and celebrating the sharing of knowledge and this shouldn’t be an issue.

However, you may still be building this culture and, even then, some people are simply not good at sharing their knowledge. This often for two reasons…

  • Knowledge is power. Some people withhold knowledge as they feel their unique ownership of that knowledge makes them more powerful (safer, valuable). This is a classic cultural problem. They obviously feel that the organisation rewards those with the knowledge and does not reward them for sharing it. Others simply like to be the ones with all the knowledge. In any case, these people do not make good experts. The problem with these experts is not just their resentment at being asked to share but, if they do share, they are not forthcoming with information.
  • They are not worthy. Some people withhold knowledge as they, secretly, don’t feel their knowledge is anything that special. They get embarrassed when asked to share their expertise. These people can be coached to make great experts and, for some, it becomes a terrifically positive experience. However, we need to be careful that they don’t share their knowledge in a very timid way. Shared knowledge needs a degree of confident behind it – you have to believe in your own expertise for others to believe in it as well!

So we want experts who are confident in their expertise, are comfortable sharing their knowledge and share in a passionate manner so that other people naturally want to take advantage of their ideas. At that point, all you need is the knowledge sharing platform and you are ready to go.


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