Building Experts

Subject matter experts have explicit knowledge from formal education and embedded in reports, manuals, websites, memos, and other corporate documents. But their implicit and tacit knowledge, based on their experience, is perhaps the source of their greatest value — whether the subject-matter expert with decades of experience who is lightning fast with a diagnosis and almost always spot-on or the manager whose team everyone wants to be on because she’s so good at motivating and mentoring.

Experts, no matter the domain, tend to have very similar attributes. Understanding these attributes allows us to start understanding how we build expertise.

DimensionExperts Demonstrate
Critical know-how and “know-what”Managerial, technical, or both; superior, experience-based techniques and processes; extraordinary factual knowledge
System thinkingKnowing interdependencies, anticipating consequences, understanding interactions
JudgementRapid, wise decision making
Context AwarenessAbility to take context into account
Pattern RecognitionSwift recognition of a phenomenon, situation, or process that has been encountered before
Networking (“Known-who”)Building and maintaining an extensive network of professionally important individuals
InterpersonalAbility to deal with individuals, including motivating and leading them; comfort with intellectual disagreement
CommunicationAbility to construct, tailor, and deliver messages through one or more media to build logical and persuasive arguments
Diagnosis and cue seekingAbility to actively identify cues in a situation that would confirm or challenge a familiar pattern; ability to distinguish signal from noise
SensoryAbility to diagnose, interpret, or predict through appropriate senses
Attributes of an Expert

One of the critical parts of being a subject matter expert is being able to help others absorb knowledge and gain wisdom through learn-by-doing techniques— guided practice, observation, problem solving, and experimentation.

Think of this as an apprenticeship program that provides deliberate practice with expert feedback, which is fundamental to the development of expertise.

Do your organizations have this sort of organized way to train an expert? How does it work?

Perform an Audit of your own Expertise

One of the dangers in any organization is that the hard-won know-how of our experts remains locked in their brains and is not shared. To beat this tendency, knowledge management should be a continuous activity in any quality system. So why not start by documenting your own knowledge as an expert?

SubjectAnswer these QuestionsThings to clarify
Foundational KnowledgeWhat reference materials do you use?

How do you track technical trends?
Should a knowledge recipient own any of these reference materials? What are the best websites? Are there particular journals that you fi nd useful? What about associations?
Technical/ScientificWhat kinds of problems do people come to you to solve?  

What are the biggest risks in the project, process, or system you manage?
Can you describe a problem brought to you recently? What technical mistakes is a novice likely to make in that project or process?
Professional NetworkWhom do you ask about technology trends and innovation?

Whom do you contact for information about government regulations?
What is this go-to person’s complete contact information? What medium does he or she prefer (email versus telephone)? What is his or her background? How do you know this person?
OrganizationalWho are the major stakeholders in the project, process, or system you manage?

What are the biggest mistakes newcomers make in trying to get projects going here?
What are the positions of the major stakeholders? Where are there competing priorities? Can you give me an example of a newcomer mistake and suggest how to avoid such mistakes?
InterpersonalRegarding team leadership, what criteria do you use to select team members?

How do you ensure the team is connected to the overall business strategy?

On a general level, how do you motivate people who report to you?
Why do you use these particular criteria? Have you ever chosen unwisely? What communication strategies are most effective? Can you give an example of what has really helped?

Once you’ve documented this knowledge, identify who else needs to know it, and then ensure the knowledge is transferred.