Posted by: arieliondotcom | October 24, 2009

The Velveteen Expert: Standards for Subject Matter Expertise

How do you establish who the “real” subject matter expert is in any given field? In an age where there’s the technology to connect with the thoughts of virtually anyone, anywhere, what is the standard for expertise and accepting it?

Is the “real” expert surgeon the most degreed with the perfected suture skills or the one who graduated lower in class rankings & education, with sloppier suturing but higher patient survival? And is “knowing” that person (through social media like Twitter and Facebook) a factor?

These questions are more than academic to me as I struggle to identify the “real” Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in my organization and create an “SME Tree” where we can link SMEs from around the world to people who need to know…and accept… what they know. What is the standard for expertise?

In a world where absolutes are eschewed maybe there are as many standards as opinions. Maybe we’ll be able to say “There’s an app for that!” soon, point our smartphones and have the “Iexpert” program hover augmented reality placards over wouldbe experts through the camera lens. There you’d see education, if that were your standard, patient survival rate, etc.

Thinking about “real” reminded me of the Velveteen Rabbit. It’s a tale about a toy bunny who struggles with identity issues, being a lump of fabric in a flesh and blood rabbit world. Perhaps the “real” expert is the one most beloved, the surgeon most trusted whose patient trusts despite lower survival rates because the surgeon is a Facebook friend.

Maybe standards go back to the pennant-type standards of ancient battles. The one you trust is the “real” expert, Montague or Capulet, depending on affiliation. Sports teams today battle on for pennants based on statistics but if you ask which teams are experts you’ll likely be told “statistics be damned.” The Red Sox believe the Yankees “bought” themselves closer to the World Series. The Yankee fans believe those sons of hell Red Sox didn’t deserve to get as far as they got and as for those stinking Angels…Ahem…

Like ancient city/state battles of the past it’s personal connection and subjective opinion that rules allegiance and expert-tagging. So perhaps the educator expert is the one who wins the allegiance of the city/states of students’ souls. Unless you make yourself a “real” (velveteen) expert they will not acknowledge your expertise or offerings in any lasting, meaningful way.

“Book larnin'” will probably remain the standard for subject matter expertise in my organization for the foreseeable future. But perhaps engagement through affection and affiliation has become, for good or ill, the new standard for expertise. For real.


  1. I think you are onto something here. We might be swayed by qualifications, lists, awards, titles, etc. but we still make our own interpretation of whose word we trust and whose skills we rate, and there’s a basic human relationship there.

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