Developing Subject Matter Experts

What is Expertship?

Expertship explained


We all understand what leadership is. It is the art and science of leading organisations and the teams of people within them. Leaders are people who inspire others, who set the agenda, who makes things happen.


In the modern organisation there is another critical role – the technical specialists who make things work. They go by many names, but they are often known as subject matter experts, or simply ‘experts’. In an increasingly complex world, their skills and knowledge are indispensable. They are the people reinventing the world. What they do is increasingly termed ‘Expertship’.


How do we define Expertship? What are its components? What exactly is it that makes an expert ‘expert’?


An important part of it is of course their deep domain knowledge. This can be in fields as diverse as technology, legal, HR, risk management or finance, or in any other area that requires specific skills and expertise. But that is only part of it.


The most successful experts are also skilful in such areas as stakeholder engagement, consulting and knowledge transfer, solutioning, and change management. They are able to take leadership roles in these areas. They are experts not only in their specialist fields, but also in their ability to collaborate with others and ensure their skills are of most benefit to the organisation.


At HFL we have described these skills and behaviours a in a unique capability framework called The Expertship Model. The Model has three domains – Technical, Value, and Relationship. Under each domain, three impact areas are described in detail. For a detailed overview of the Expertship Model click here

The Expertship model

The Expertship model

Subject matter experts are more important and more valuable than ever before. Getting the most out of them is a significant challenge for many organisations, whose talent strategies tend to revolve around looking after so called ‘people leaders’ rather than domain specialists.


The world in which experts operate is very different from the world in which people leaders operate. Experts of course need their technical knowledge – they have had lots of training in this area, and that is what they were hired for.


But they also need the ability to influence without authority, and to manage broad and complex stakeholder maps. They often sit on multiple teams across many parts of the organisation, functionally and geographically dispersed, with opaque reporting lines and ill-defined priorities.


Many organisations understand this. Initiatives to address the many challenges of Expertship are now appearing, in many organisations in the public and private sectors. These initiatives include:


  • Building capability frameworks that encompass the skills and proficiencies that experts need to develop to be able to add more value to the organisation. These go beyond technical skills, to include experts’ relationships, collaboration skills and business orientation. HFL’s Expertship Model is such a framework, and has been adopted by many organisations.
  • Building development programs for experts to help them self-assess their capabilities, then using that knowledge to develop experts’ skill sets around those capabilities.
  • Building career path frameworks for experts, where often none had previously existed. An expert was simply viewed as a technician with a certain number of years’ experience.
  • Deploying coaches, who are have themselves been technical specialists, to help experts embed and develop these skills.


HFL is an acknowledged world leader in developing and executing Expertship programs. Our breakthrough Mastering Expertship program has been adopted around the world by more than 40 organisations in industries as diverse as finance and insurance, information technology, utilities, manufacturing and distribution, and the public sector.


All of these organisations have a different view of what Expertship actually looks like, but they have all found the HFL Expertship Model to be an effective framework for beginning the Expertship conversation with their staff and for building an effective Expertship development program. No matter what their industry sector, they all wish to achieve similar outcomes:


  • They want to retain their top technical talent. These people are difficult to find and expensive to replace. They also typically have a huge amount of informal and undocumented knowledge and expertise about the organisation that walks out of the door if they leave. This deep body of knowledge can be difficult or even impossible to replace. They understand that to retain their experts and to get the most from them, they need to provide direction and a clear path to seniority.
  • They want to get more value from their experts. They want them to operate at a more strategic level and step outside of their technical comfort zone. They understand that experts’ work will be more valuable when it has this type of organisational context, but also that many experts will find this a challenge. They want to help experts bridge the gap.
  • They may also want to reduce the incidences of poor behavior or a lack of collaboration from experts. Some experts are dismissive of people with less knowledge, or are reluctant to work on projects they don't like, or they hoard their knowledge. Many experts come across as not being a collegiate individuals – this can often be both the organisation’s fault and the expert’s fault.


The Mastering Expertship program highlights these gaps and clearly identifies areas of improvement. It shows experts and their managers their strengths and weaknesses, and ways they can holistically address the skill sets they need to become more valuable to the organisation and to themselves.


HFL has also developed a unique 360 degree multi-rater survey based on the Expertship Model, which allows subject matter experts – and the organisations they serve – to assess at what level they are currently performing, and what opportunities for personal growth exist. This 360 degree survey is called Expertship360.


These many skills are important to subject matter experts. The Expertship model and the Expertship 360 survey are designed to help them identify and develop these skills. Most development activities have historically revolve around the further development of their technical domain knowledge -the area in which they need the least assistance. Now they can identify all the areas in which they need to improve their skills.


Often the biggest issue with Expertship is knowing where to start. Here is how a number of organisations have done it:





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