How to Become a Subject-Matter Expert

(This article originally appeared in Loss Prevention Magazine)

Work experience doesn’t necessarily mean you are a subject-matter expert. It could mean you know more than some people. A true subject-matter expert (SME) must have deep understanding of a particular process, function, or technology; must have studied the field; and must have spent hundreds—even thousands—of hours mastering a specific business topic. An easy way to define an SME is that this is a person who knows a great deal more about the topic than others with comparable experience. That being said, you may still be called an expert just by understanding more than others.

SMEs often share their knowledge freely. In retail, asset protection needs true SMEs more than ever. Our industry is changing at a rapid pace, and as AP professionals we need to stay relevant. The challenge is that technology’s rate of evolution is exponential, whereas people tend to move incrementally when it comes to learning new things. Often it’s the adoption and usage curve that slows AP down. Additionally, the implementation of new technology can be daunting.

Earn It

I am often asked how I learned about a particular technology or process. I will share a few examples. Several years ago, I was asked about interview and interrogation techniques by a newer, younger, brighter AP person. She was eager to learn and asked great questions. I explained the standard process to get certified and how to watch others, ask questions, and practice. The next day I brought her into my office and showed her my bookshelf because I forgot one thing: “I read a lot.” I didn’t realize it until that point that I had virtually every book on interview and interrogation there is, and I read them all, some more than once.

Another question she asked was how do I know so much about security systems and CCTV. At first I said, “I just know from working with it over the years.” But then it dawned on me—I asked questions, knew whom to partner with, researched, studied, read books, and took the approach of a lifetime student. If I am in a meeting and don’t know enough about a topic, I make an effort to learn about it. Even as I took on more responsibility, I never stopped reading and learning. I have a yearly goal of reading a book a week.

The colleague who asked me these questions, like many young AP professionals, has a distinct advantage over when I started twenty years ago—the Internet was not what it is today. Nowadays, you can look up anything and read about it instantly. In many cases you can watch a video at no cost. Social media allows you to hear what others are saying about a topic and connect directly with SMEs. You can even ask about a topic online to gather more understanding.

If you feel like you’ve become an expert or SME, you should probably not be the first one to call yourself that. Let others recognize you. I remember the first time someone called me to ask for advice on how to monitor social media. I never thought of myself as an expert. It’s great to be seen as one and called one. But I should also mention that if you are an SME, don’t deny it when someone calls you that—it can be viewed as false humility.

Your To-Do List

Here are some steps that I believe helped me become a subject-matter expert in a few areas:

  • Never stop learning.
  • Read a lot to include books, news, blogs, audiobooks, and podcasts. All of it counts.
  • Ask questions.
  • Know the experts in your field and network with them.
  • Set a goal for yourself of mastering the topics that interest you.

Recently, I was asked how I manage to write for magazines and blogs, speak at shows, and do podcasts. The short answer is to put yourself out there. Start to write about what you know and submit to various outlets. If you know what you are talking about, people will notice it and will invite you to share your opinions and experiences.

As retail changes, take advantage of learning new technologies, methods, and strategies. Embrace the change and never stop learning. Follow blogs, read this magazine, and listen to podcasts. All of the information is yours to take. Be good to your peers and share what you know. If you do that, we will all become better.