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Why Subject Matter Experts Matter


by Abby Millager on 26 August 2016

You know how media networks try to tag an upbeat story to the tail of every broadcast, as a salve for the heart-wrenching news of the day? For me, subject matter experts are that salve, that indication that at least something’s right with the world.

If this sounds sappy, it is. But look around. How many things in our current existence can you say are being done or made with impeccable care? We’re drowning in shoddy, mass-produced junk delivered with a yawn and a show of ignorance raised to the level of performance art.

Enter the Subject Matter Expert (SME). Here is someone who has done all the due diligence and is prepared, willing and able to provide assistance to the rest of us, who have not. My father used to say, it’s easy to learn 95 percent of something. It’s that last five percent that is hard. SMEs are the five percenters. Just as Guildsmen of yore, they’ve worked hard for years to earn their knowledge, they’re rightly proud of it, and if they’re part of your organization, the public needs to know.

Take one composites expert I interviewed for a white paper on a type of epoxy resin. Along with glass or carbon-reinforcements, epoxy resins can be used to make huge laminate components for things like wind turbines and speedboat hulls. What I learned was that under certain conditions, such as humid weather during processing, laminates can absorb moisture from the air. The result is “champagne laminate”—a large hunk of plastic filled with tiny voids that act like the perforations in a strip of carnival tickets. Not liking to chance having things like windmill blades or ultralite wings break off, this guy’s group came up with an improvement—a type of resin that resists absorbing water. Worth thinking about, next time you take your pleasure craft for a spin.

And then there’s the pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist who’s an expert on a rare syndrome called CHARGE. Children born with this complex syndrome can have a wide variety of problems. These include malformations of the eyes, ears, nose and throat, leading to problems hearing, seeing, speaking and swallowing. Often, such children have major heart and genitourinary defects, as well as endocrine abnormalities. On top of everything, developmental and psychological problems often occur as well.

Parenting a child like this is a minefield. This doctor, who sees CHARGE families every day, told me about an “aha” moment when an eight-year-old patient came in, referred by another center. The family had dragged their feet about getting a cochlear implant. The child was already blind and was losing the hearing he had; the window of opportunity to make an implant work had passed. The whole situation was tragic.

The specialist recalls, “I never wanted to be in this situation with a patient again.” So he prodded his institution to create a comprehensive CHARGE center to help families of children with CHARGE organize and receive all the medical and developmental care and support they need. Even though this is a rare disease, for affected families, a resource like this is priceless. Without this expert’s perspective and drive, it would not exist.

The fact is, no one’s going to have you stick your foot in wet cement for, say, knowing everything there is to know about a rare disease or a plastic—or, for that matter, motor oil additives for light duty vehicles. But there’s a certain beauty in such fine-grained knowledge and without it, all those limos wouldn’t make it to the Academy Awards. Which is why communications are important to let customers know what your experts are doing. And which is also why, right here, I’m giving props to these unsung heroes who, as BH Fairchild puts it (see below), withdraw each day into their respective houses of work.

The Art of the Lathe (excerpt) by BH Fairchild The long line of machinists to my left

lean into their work, ungloved hands adjusting the calipers,

tapping the bit lightly with their fingertips.

Each man withdraws into his house of work:

the rough cut, shearing of iron by tempered steel,

blue-black threads lifting like locks of hair,

then breaking over bevel and ridge.

Oil and water splash over the whitening bit, hissing.

The lathe on night-shift, moonlight silvering the bed-ways.

Alice James Books (1998)