A capability model for subject matter experts

The Expertship Model

A capability framework for subject matter experts

Mapping the development of technical specialists



HFL has developed a detailed and practical capability framework – the Expertship Model - to describe the skill set of the subject matter expert. The model has evolved through our experience of working with over 500 subject matter experts over many years, and is now mature framework for assessing all aspects of an expert’s desired capabilities.


Why is a model needed? It is a roadmap for the capabilities that an expert – regardless of their specialty - needs to be proficient in. Expertship is about a lot more than being an expert in a single technical specialty.


The Expertship Model identifies three main domains – Technical, Value and Relationship. Under these three domains sit nine impact areas, or talents, through which the performance of experts can be measured.
The Expertship modelThe Expertship model

Technical Domain

Many experts never look beyond this domain. And even within it, they often think that their specialised knowledge is sufficient. It is not - they need to know how to use it and how to help others access it. Knowledge is power – but only if it is used effectively. Many experts believe that only the first of these two impact areas are important. But most organisations want much more from their experts.


  • Expert Knowledge: How the expert acquires, retains and grows deep specialist knowledge and experience effectively.
  • Solutioning: How the expert solves complex technical problems effectively and quickly, via insightful diagnosis, allowing them to shape long term solutions that improve processes and create opportunities.
  • Knowledge Transfer: How the expert develops increases the expertise of others to apply specialist knowledge and to facilitate increased organisational capability.


Value Domain

This domain defines how experts add value to the organisation by putting their knowledge and skills into context and leveraging them for the overall benefit the organisation. It shows how they can be agents and leaders of change, demonstrating active engagement in improving organisational performance.


  • Market Context: How the expert acquires, retains, refreshes and deploys contextual, organisational, competitive and customer knowledge effectively.
  • Value Impact: How the expert identifies, articulates and realises tangible ways of adding commercial or community value.
  • Change Impact: How the expert acts as a change catalyst and leads change initiatives effectively.


Relationship Domain

This domain covers their expert’s relations with other people in the organisation – their stakeholders, their managers and others in their team. Importantly it also looks at their own personal brand and what it means to them and the organisation. Collaboration and interpersonal skills are critical to experts’ effectiveness. They need to know how to ask the right questions and give the right answers.


  • Stakeholder Engagement: How the expert builds and maintains mutually rewarding relationships across a variety of internal and external stakeholder groups.
  • Collaboration: How the expert acts as a valuable, proactive member of their teams, virtual or co-located, taking on a leadership role when required and appropriate.
  • Personal Impact: How the expert influences others positively, is self-aware, empathetic and adaptive, and enables individual and collective results.


Levels of Expertship

All of these areas are important. They all have one thing in common - harnessing the expert’s capabilities for the greater good. Experts, like all of us, live and work within an organisational matrix. They need to cooperate and collaborate, and ensure their skills and of their knowledge are shared across a range of organisational functions.


The Expertship Model defines the expert’s level of effectiveness in each area as being at one of three levels:


  • Specialist, where they typically have advanced skills in the Technical Domain only.
  • Expert, where they have also acquired skills in the Relationship Domain and the Value Domain.
  • Master Expert, where they have acquired advanced skills in all three domains.


We also identify ‘Derailing’ behaviours, where experts’ actions are counterproductive or even damaging.


Overlaid on the Expertship Model, these levels of Expertship enable experts themselves, and their managers, to assess the level at which they are currently operating, for each of the nine impact areas. This pinpoints the areas of greatest need in developing extra skills.



Levels of Expertship


The Expertship model


How organisations use the Expertship Model


HFL has now worked with hundreds of subject matter experts from a variety of organisations. They have all self-assessed against the Expertship Model, and then been assessed by those in their relationship network via a comprehensive survey tool, called the Expertship360),designed specifically for subject matter experts and based on the Expertship Model.


We have found that regardless of the results (some of them quite challenging), technical experts and their managers have been uniformly positive about having a clear framework that allows them to assess Expertship levels.


Importantly, it enables the organisation to show that they care about their experts and want to invest in them. This is a very big deal to many experts we have worked with, who have often felt under-valued, ignored or isolated.


From their point of view development initiatives invariably seem to be focused on people leaders. It seems to them that the only way to get ahead in most organisations is to become a ‘soft skills’ people leader, which many experts simply don't want to do.


A robust Expertship capability framework brings many benefits of the organisation:


  • It provides a superb tool to enable anyone managing an expert to have a performance conversation with them about the level at which they are operating.
  • It forms the basis of development planning with experts. What skills should they work on improving?
  • It is a usable and practical talent management tool (at last!) for experts. It finally allows organisations to assess the potential of their experts to add value to the organisation based on skills and competencies beyond just their technical knowledge.
  • It is useful as a critical retention and motivation tool.
  • It is a tool to help experts share their knowledge willingly. This allows them to spend more time working on higher order issues, which in turn reduces single point of failure risks being reduced by the organisation.
  • It allows the organisation to assess the development needs of various technical cohorts and address them via meaningful and targeted development programs.


It also provides many important benefits to the expert:


  • It enables the expert to self assess.
  • It forms the basis of the Expert360 survey tool, allowing experts for the first time to actually get feedback about them and their role as an expert.
  • It enables experts to be more understood and more valued over time, as they make broader contributions to the organisation.
  • Experts and their managers for the first time are able to have real conversations about performance levels.
  • It gives experts a clear view of how they can develop and report on their development planning. This was impossible before – now it is s a critical activity.
  • It shows experts where their capability gaps are, which means they can focus on doing something concrete about them.


The Expertship Model is an important tool for engaging and advancing technical specialists. HFL has developed a primer on the model, which includes a detailed description of behaviours under each impact area and a description of how the Expertship360 assessment tool is constructed, and how it works. To request a free copy, please click here.


Click here to read about HFL’s associated Mastering Expertship program, which aims to help technical specialists advance their career, re-engage with their organisation, and deliver outstanding business value.




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