Subject Matter Expertise: What Is It and How Do You Acquire It?

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Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash

You can learn through this process to explain your expertise to others- and it’s worth it on many levels

If you want to advance your career, learning to communicate complex knowledge and concepts is vital. It requires pulling further out and developing a bigger picture of how the subject fits in with other things in the world. This moves you out of the tactical knowledge level and into the strategic knowledge level. For me this is where things get more interesting. But you have to go through this process to get there.

If we go back to the CCMS story, once I’d reached the ability to explain a concept concept like DITA, in terms that a non-technical person could understand and relate to, I had my marketing communication plan and could start thinking about the top level reason a company’s management would invest in that kind of tool. This gave me case for them considering that purchase. I was enough of an SME to bridge the gap between technical knowledge and value knowledge. That’s my sweet spot as a marketer and consultant.

I hope this article provides a useful framework for acquiring practical knowledge or moving educational experience into the real world. If you dive in, your subject matter expertise can open up all kinds of opportunities. Mine helped me get book deals, become senior management at tech companies, and meet some very interesting people as a peer, to mention just a few things. It’s worth it.

Developing the skills of becoming an expert fast

Have you ever inventoried your personal areas of expertise? One definition of expertise is that you already know of new developments in a field before they become general knowledge. In my experience, becoming a subject matter expert (SME) is the most useful skill you can develop. It makes you more valuable, less susceptible to being marginalized, and gives you the ability to make more money doing things you find interesting. But to acquire this valuable skill you have to understand what it is and how to get it. Because it is ultimately a mindset. First some background.

Audio recording, B2B marketing, social media monitoring software, component content management systems, translation and localization, commercial catering management, early stage human drug trials…

Those are the areas I have, of necessity, become a subject matter expert in over the past twenty years. I am a B2B marketer and they are the product and service categories I have worked on over the years. While they may seem bizarrely unrelated they have common characteristics:

  • They are complex subjects
  • They are extremely specialized
  • They are driven by technology
  • Their target audiences are highly sophisticated
  • They are services and products used by businesses

My specialty is taking complex subjects like these and helping people understand them, in the context of why they should care. ‘What’s in it for me?’ explanations for people who need to solve problems but may not really care or have the time to develop a deep understanding of the available solutions. My true subject matter expertise is becoming a subject matter expert fast. This is how I do it, developed after years of practice.

Not ‘jack of all trades, master of none’

It would seem that it is simply not possible to be an expert in this many different subjects, so let me define expertise at my level. I am a marketer and a professional writer. Today, with access to deep information on any subject, the expectations of those I market to are more complex. I can’t simply write clever ads and pitches. People want actionable information that helps them make decisions, which can impact them personally. I’ll pick one of those areas and show you the path I took to understanding it.

Daunting complexity: Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA)

Component Content Management Systems (CCMSs) are complex, enterprise level, content development, organization, and publishing software systems. They are based on an architecture called DITA, which stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture. This was developed by IBM to help them manage over 70 million documents. And its complexity is daunting, as you might expect. I took a job as Director of Marketing for a developer of these systems with no prior knowledge of how they work, who would use them, or what the benefits of them are. My first exposure was, frankly, bewildering. Their use requires tech writers and documentation managers to embrace an entirely different way of working compared to legacy systems like MS Word- and they don’t like it. So I had to demystify the concepts, show a path to adoption, and make a business case for going down that path. This product was a five to six figure annual subscription for the buyer and involved a major corporate commitment to a new technology, training, and processes. Not exactly the easiest set of circumstances.

Acquiring enough knowledge to explain it to a child

Years ago, I read that when starting to learn a new subject you should go to the children’s section of the library and read children’s books about it. They would give you the basics as a starting point. Obviously there are no children’s books about CCMSs but I did start by getting dummy explanations wherever I could find them. I searched competitor sites, picked the company co-founder’s brains, which was only marginally useful because they were so deep into the subject, and read industry consultant’s blogs. I signed up for newsletters and read everything I could even if it was mystifyingly complex. I even read IBM’s DITA standard documentation and the ISO standard for CCMSs. I bugged my co-workers constantly with dumb questions.

Gradually my understanding started to develop. When you jam your subconscious with piles of information and the experience of others, it can and will be very confusing. But the subconscious is working in the background to synthesize and understand its meaning. I’ve learned to let this process run its course. I know it will begin to present a logic if I let it. And it did. I even had a lightbulb moment where a basic concept I had been grappling with suddenly made sense. That was the moment I began my progress towards expertise.

Stage two: synthesis

Synthesis is where you start to acquire expertise. It’s that moment when your accumulated knowledge moves your understanding up to the next level, which is the ability to explain the complex subjects you’ve been studying to someone with less knowledge. Unfortunately, many ‘experts’ never reach this level, in part because they are immersed in building or working with the subject rather than communicating with those with less knowledge. It’s often not a requirement.

As an example, consider a high level programmer who is immersed in the details of very specific problems. If they are not regularly asked to explain why what they are doing is important (to management or a customer. etc.), they won’t develop the communication skills that requires. And they may be fine with that. For me it happens to be the most important aspect of being an SME.

You can learn through this process to explain your expertise to others- and it’s worth it on many levels

If you want to advance your career, learning to communicate complex knowledge and concepts is vital. It requires pulling further out and developing a bigger picture of how the subject fits in with other things in the world. This moves you out of the tactical knowledge level and into the strategic knowledge level. For me this is where things get more interesting. But you have to go through this process to get there.

If we go back to the CCMS story, once I’d reached the ability to explain a concept concept like DITA, in terms that a non-technical person could understand and relate to, I had my marketing communication plan and could start thinking about the top level reason a company’s management would invest in that kind of tool. This gave me case for them considering that purchase. I was enough of an SME to bridge the gap between technical knowledge and value knowledge. That’s my sweet spot as a marketer and consultant.

I hope this article provides a useful framework for acquiring practical knowledge or moving educational experience into the real world. If you dive in, your subject matter expertise can open up all kinds of opportunities. Mine helped me get book deals, become senior management at tech companies, and meet some very interesting people as a peer, to mention just a few things. It’s worth it.

Written by

Novelist, Tech Marketing Writer, Growth Consultant. I have been a professional writer for over 20 years- 8 non-fiction books and 1 novel, many articles, etc.

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