I recently went to a client meeting “unsupervised” and was astounded at the amount of anxiety I felt. While I’ve gone to many a customer meeting, this was my first time not being accompanied by a product manager and / or sales / commercial person to be supervised. I was ridiculously nervous but couldn’t understand why. Upon further reflection, I realized that I didn’t feel competent enough to be presenting the content. Even though I had done all the design research myself with multiple stakeholders, I felt nervous presenting the concepts. Upon even further reflection, I realized it was because I didn’t have an aviation SME (subject matter expert) in the room. With the product managers and sales representatives, I always had someone to back me up if I didn’t understand the aviation terminology, maneuvers, process, etc. However, being by myself, I had to prove that I knew what I was talking about.
This started me off on a different tangent of thinking about SMEs in life. Designers are SMEs for process (research, ideation, creation, refinement), just as software developers are SMEs for engineering. Taking this a step further, your friend who you always call for advice is your emotional intelligence SME just as your super social friends might be your “party” SMEs. While the concept of being an SME is similar to saying you wear multiple hats or you take on different roles, the term SME takes it a step further.
With Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 rules (10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field), this means that everything we consciously (or unconsciously) spend our time doing allows us to be an SME. As someone who is constantly reconfiguring her life for maximum efficiency and productivity, this concept intrigues me. Not only is it important that we do spend the time to read books and become knowledgable about our careers, but also place importance in how we spend our time and experiences to grow expertise. For example, why traveling and vacationing might be the activity of choice, in actuality it might be building up an SME capability of living on your own and figuring out foreign lands. The combination of nature and nurture also play a role here. Someone might be talented and naturally inclined to a specific skill (nature), making them an SME, but lack of practice in their environment (nurture) could possibly not make them an SME. This seems to correlate with the Peter Principle where middle management keeps getting stuck. By not looking forward to seeing what is needed for the future, the individuals end up being SMEs for their current roles rather than the future ones.
So while we acquire skill sets and learn languages to benefit ourselves, another way to think of it might be:
What can you offer the world as an SME?*
*Please don’t think you have to be good at any one thing to be an SME.
Everyone is an SME in their own way, based on their background, interests, and life circumstances.