Subject-Matter Experts: Asset or Liability?

Everyone wants to be an expert on something. You see “experts” all over the place and they seem to be the most sought after for jobs and promotions as well as the folks that people go to first when they have a question.

So obviously, a subject-matter expert (SME) is the ideal employee and an employer should make every effort to have every employee be a SME, right?


Subject-matter experts often feel their value is based on their knowledge, opinions, and experience. To admit they don’t know everything, or to entertain the possibility that they may be wrong, challenges their status as a SME in their mind. However, ideally, our SMEs should be the most open to challenges!

The reality is that many well-educated people did not receive the type of education that forced them to question their own assumptions and the assumptions of others.  Compounding this reality is the fact that they often are not skilled enough in emotional intelligence to interact well with others – they’re opinionated, convinced they are correct, and not even swayed by solid logic.

Today’s workplaces are filled with people who simply do not have the skills to outsmart VUCA. Unfortunately, in my twenty-five-plus years of working with a wide variety of highly technical companies, I have observed – almost without exception – a heavy reliance on subject-matter experts, and all too often SMEs, with the best of intentions, end up leading the organization down the primrose path to less-than-stellar decisions.

This way of thinking is not working in today’s VUCA environment. The thinking that worked yesterday, the thinking that established them as a SME, simply does not work as well today, and it almost certainly won’t work as well tomorrow.

In order to function well in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world, we need SMEs who can question their assumptions and the assumptions of those around them. Those who operate with the framework that there is always new information, and that there is always someone out there smarter than them, will be the ones who are better prepared for whatever challenges this VUCA world throws their way.

Want to learn more about how to survive in this VUCA environment? Read Outsmarting V.U.C.A. for the best advice on achieving success in this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.


Dr. Don Gilman is a professional speaker, trainer, and author of “Outsmarting VUCA: Achieving Success in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous World”. With a Doctorate degree in Organization Change, as well as advanced degrees in Engineering Physics, Nuclear Engineering, and Engineering Management, Don is uniquely positioned to understand the challenges organizations face today in capturing new opportunities and staying competitive in this VUCA environment.