John Ohrenberger

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5 min read

Subject Matter Experts and The ‘Hit By a Bus’ Phenomenon

Articles L&D Talent Management

In my last job, there was a guy named James…and James was our go-to guy. Being in the healthcare software space, our clients loved data. Supply chain is all about ‘squeezing more juice out of the lemon’ and with the rising costs of healthcare, our hospital customers relied on our platform for some pretty significant decisions.

That’s where James came in. James started his career at our company and because of his abilities to work with data, he quickly grew from an entry-level business analyst into a key role working with our database and record store. At least, that was his job description on paper. In reality, James was more likely responsible for keeping a multi-million dollar business afloat single-handedly. His knowledge of the information our platform collected was second to none and soon more and more groups relied on him to pull custom reports, assist with client services, or identify critical business opportunities. The phrase “I don’t know, why don’t you go ask James” was probably uttered a dozen times a day.

This brings me to what I call the ‘hit by a bus’ phenomenon. During critical times, such as the launch of a new initiative, we used to joke, somewhat morbidly, that we hoped James wouldn’t get hit by a bus on his way home from work (of course, we always hoped he wouldn’t get hit by a bus, but during critical times, it seemed to be on our mind more often). It was a crass way of acknowledging that this one individual was so crucial to our company that if he ever decided to leave, there would be a significant impact on our ability to run our business. Sound familiar? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re reading this right now and thinking something like ‘huh, just like Jessica in IT’.

Unfortunately, what started out as a genuine willingness to help his company succeed had turned into a commitment that was way out of scope for James’ role, and it began affecting his engagement at work. While not a new phenomenon, it seems to be an increasing one in many organizations. Due to the continued specialization of technologies and processes, the need for domain or subject matter expertise continues to rise. And once companies get ahold of these experts, they often take them for granted, squeezing them for all they’re worth while failing to show proper gratitude. And in a growing economy where your SMEs don’t have to look too hard for other opportunities, you may end up in a situation where you need a new expert to fill the opening left by the outgoing one. Thus, the cycle restarts.

Clearly, managing your SME population has significant implications. So what are some strategies for improving this aspect of your business? As with many business challenges, I look at how a company can enhance its learning program to not only help solve the problem now, but also implement a cultural change to prevent the problem from showing up in the future.

The Influencer Culture

Social networks like LinkedIn came up with the idea of the ‘influencer’ several years back as a way to distribute an individual’s expertise on a mass scale. As opposed to managing hundreds or thousands of requests to connect, share, and network, LinkedIn provided this status as a way for these individuals to share their knowledge in a much more impactful way. This concept is one that is starting to appear in the corporate world as well. If your company is using social technology, what are the ways that you can identify SMEs and allow them to share their knowledge to the masses in a much more scalable way?

Learner-Led Learning

The whole reason that SMEs field so many questions is because they have credibility across the organization. In that case, is there an opportunity for the L&D team to use the SMEs knowledge to promote new learning? Your learners will be more likely to check out a video or article that’s been authored by a respected SME rather than the nameless L&D organization. Identifying SMEs and building a content message around them is a great way to capture their knowledge and increase engagement in learning.


Employees value recognition and SMEs are no different. However, most often that recognition takes the form of increased leeway and freedom in order to keep the expert happy. While that’s a nice demonstration of trust and appreciation, recognizing your SMEs formally for the work they do can go a long way to establishing loyalty and employee satisfaction.

Unfortunately, recognition can be the hardest aspect to get right at a repeatable, scalable level. You can only so often resort to pay raises or bonuses before you’ve “played that card” or, well, run out of money. Forbes recently ran an article on creative ways to recognize your employees, and while not each way will resonate with every employee, I applaud the creative approach.

As an L&D professional, a good start to showing appreciation for your SMEs is to integrate their knowledge into your normal workflow and curriculum. Ask the SME for course recommendations in their areas of expertise, request they answer questions from newer hires in your company’s social learning platform (if you have one), or encourage them to start internal ‘meetups’ around their most valued skills. Of course, there’s no “one size fits all” approach here, so a great first step is simply getting to know your SMEs and their preferences and motivations.


When trying to help manage and grow your company’s SME population, L&D has a unique chance to not only contribute, but to also help solve a critical business need in a scalable way. SMEs, after all, are employees with valued and sought after knowledge, so it certainly makes sense for L&D to setup a learning environment that helps create new ones. However, integrating existing SMEs more closely into the culture of learning at your organization is an oft-overlooked catalyst to helping grow that population, and doing so also has the nice side effect of keeping the existing SME motivated through peer recognition and appreciation. If we had only set up such an environment for James instead of bombarding him with timely questions or calling him into urgent meetings, he might still be with us today. *

* Note: “with us” as with the company. I’m happy to say James did not get hit by a bus. He’s happy and healthy, just at a different company 🙁

Categories: Articles L&D Talent Management

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