What No One Tells You About Being a Subject Matter Expert

Chasing a Moving Target

In 1900, Buckminster Fuller estimated that the sum of human knowledge doubled approximately every 100 years. Current estimations place that rate at every 13 months. In 2006, with the boom of the Internet of Things (IoT), IBM estimated that rate increase up to every 12 hours. Learn more here. What does this mean to us? If we strive to be Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), our goal is essentially a moving target. In the words of Tommy Lee Jones in the film Men in Black, “Fifteen hundred years ago, everyone knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago everyone ‘knew’ the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you ‘knew’ that people were alone on this planet… imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

We are uncomfortable with being ignorant. It’s part of the human condition and something I would never want to change. That being said, it is important that we don’t equate our need for discovery with a need for retention. There is simply too much to remember. What we remember may become invalid with the next software revision, the next hardware platform, etc.

Don’t Be Afraid to Declare Your Ignorance

As SMEs it’s less important that we retain data on a given subject, and more important we hone our skills at discovering the answers our customers need. We can easily fall into a trap while talking with our peers. They ask a question and we’re afraid of being viewed as ignorant. Therefore, we give what we believe to be the correct answer. Yet, it ends up being the wrong answer and you promote the perception you tried to avoid.

After all, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt – right? I disagree. Speak out. Declare your ignorance! Additionally, there is a nobility in humble action. That act of honesty provides a better measure of your competence to customers than any assumption they might make based on your silence.


Andrew Kanuch, Interstates Manufacturing IT Analyst