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Subject Matter Expert vs. Consultant: What’s the Difference?

Subject Matter Expert vs. Consultant: What’s the Difference?

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are people who have a significant amount of knowledge or experience regarding a specific subject. They can specialize in any kind of academic discipline, profession or practice. Even though their area of expertise is relatively narrow compared to general consultants, there is still a lot of variability among SMEs.

Businesses consult with SMEs when they require specific insight on a project. Typically this is done on temporary contract or through retainer services, since these individuals often serve many different companies through their career. Ultimately, the value provided by a subject expert depends on the full breadth of their personal experiences as well as communications and other skills.

The Benefits of Subject Matter Expert

Subject matter experts provide value to businesses by offering them advanced insight, knowledge and perspective. Even large companies can’t afford to maintain specialized employees for every possible subject area, which means small companies can’t even come close. That’s okay though because it’s almost always more efficient to simply bring experts on board when you need them.

Since SMEs are focused on maintaining a broad and cutting-edge mastery of their field, they can help educate others and help them understand the dynamics of the process at hand. They can also leverage their knowledge and experience to guide specific decisions, whether it’s engineering a new product or implementing new workplace policies.

How to Use a Subject Matter Expert

Companies use subject matter experts in the same way they use lawyers: when they need them. That doesn’t mean businesses shouldn’t seek out and establish relations with qualified people, but it’s hard to predict what kind of SME you’ll need until the moment arrives. There’s no “right way” to use a subject matter expert as long as you are leveraging the depth and scope of their knowledge to add value.

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What is a Consultant?

Consultants are professional service-providers who cater to specific types of clients. There are limitless roles and opportunities for consultants in the business world, whether it’s management, staffing or maintenance. As a general rule, the term “consultant” describes anyone who provides advice to companies regarding practical application and operations.

The Benefits of Consultant

Even though they are being paid by their client, consultants often adopt a semi-distant position as a third-party during the early phases of the collaboration. This helps them provide objective and thoughtful insight to help identify problems, solutions and opportunities. Consultants often become the joint that everything else hinges on as they work with all the key players in the project.

How to Use a Consultant

The key to using consultants, or being a consultant, is communication. Every employer, project and person is different. Setting clear limitations, expectations and organization on the collaboration is a basic best practice for getting real value out of it. It never hurts to talk to previous clients and dig into the background of potential consultants before hiring them.

Subject Matter Expert vs. Consultant: What’s the Difference?

Even though SMEs and consultants have a similar role in the business world, they are distinctly different. An easy way to tell them apart is to look for theory versus practice. Subject matter experts are primarily valued for their knowledge and the ability to convey this information to others clearly. Consultants are valued for their ability to put information in context and develop a strategy to implement knowledge in a practical way.

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Subject Matter Expert vs Consultant: Who would use a SME or Consultants?

Consultants and SMEs have valuable roles and can be used by any kind of company. In general, a business is more likely to use consultants on a regular basis. Subject experts are usually brought in during later stages of ideation, development or problem-solving. It’s all about picking the right one for the situation.

Choosing Between Subject Matter Expert and Consultant: Real World Scenarios

If you don’t know what you need or what you are doing, you probably need a consultant. Consultants help businesses prioritize and process information so they can start getting things in order. These people aren’t just experts in their specific area, they are also experts in how this specialty should be integrated into business operations.

A subject matter expert is more focused on their area of study than the business applications. It’s up to the business to leverage the expertise of a SME. Most companies don’t even think about using subject experts until a real need arises.

Gaining from Good Advice

There’s incredible value in good advice that has been informed by education and experience. Every business leader should understand the difference between subject matter experts and consultants so they can properly use them both. Knowing when to seek out specialized knowledge and learning how to use it is one of the biggest steps towards becoming a great business leader.

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