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Library: Subject Matter Experts out; Collaborative groups in


by Alicia Blain

For a long time, corporate America has cherished its subject matter experts or SMEs as they are known. It takes a lot of experience, hard work and a deep expertise in a particular subject area to become known as an SME and itís not a title given lightly. For the most part, however, SMEs are individual people called upon to share their knowledge as needed by their team or their boss. This makes sense as Baby Boomers and Xers have approached work from an individual contributor standpoint. They have made it a point to develop expertise in their subject areas on their own. Even as part of a team, SMEs still stand out from the others based on the specific knowledge they know.

As I tried to make sense of Millennials and observed them in their natural work habitat, it occurred to me that the notion of an SME as we understood it today may not hold in the future. As most of us know by now, Millennials have grown up in rapidly changing times. They were also highly connected, both technologically, having access to any type of information at their fingertips and collaboratively working on projects with their peers. They quickly learned at a very young age, that with information changing so quickly, it would always be better to work in groups and tackle a project rather than do so individually. They became very comfortable and adept at breaking down projects and assigning portions of the projects to members of the group. Each person would be responsible for their piece but the group would come together to address the specific outcomes the project required.

Now this wasnít something that they learned in school or from their parents. Working collaboratively is something Millennials do naturally. I often think itís because they grew up having to tackle so many activities that working together with fellow Millennials was the only way they could juggle it all. Even when they were at home, they were still collaborating online and sharing their knowledge with their friends. They became what I call Collaborative Groups. As they came together to determine the solution to a problem or a project, the group as a whole had the expertise more than the individuals. Although each person had the information he or she was assigned to obtain, the solution to the problem was determined as a group.

The Millennials bring that way of thinking to the workplace. They work things out collectively not individually. Even when you think you are assigning a Millennial a project, you can bet they are asking other Millennials or teamates for input and assistance. Itís important that you not jump to the conclusion that Millennials canít think or do things on their own. They can but they prefer not to. They are wired to understand that in todayís world one person can no longer have a deep expertise in something . It is much more efficient to get the participation of others. This way you are sharing ideas and different perspectives with people from within your team or preferably, outside the team.

Millennials learned early that diversity of ideas breeds innovation and makes the ultimate solution richer. You canít do this as an SME but you can if you are part of a Collaborative Group.

In the future donít be surprised if SMEs are replaced by Collaborative Groups. Iíve seen them in action and they are very effective.

Alicia Blain
A former executive of a fortune 500 company, Alicia Blain is the CEO of the Millennial Lab which offers leading-edge educational services and products (including consulting, training, research and media outreach) to organizations and associations.She shares her innovative, proven methods on how leaders and teachers can challenge their conventional management and teaching practices, recognize and capitalize on the value of Millennials (Gen Y) and achieve unprecedented results in record time. Follow Alicia on Linked In and Twitter



Clay Forsberg says: 
Excellent piece Alicia. You hit home on two points.

First, I'm glad you predicted the demise SMEs. If we could only relay that notion to the hundreds of thousands so-called experts on Twitter (at least according to their bios). As you pointed out, information is changing so fast, how can anybody be an expert at anything. All you can hope for is to be a facilitator putting together a good team, working on the right focus, in a productive setting.

And second - Millennials are social animals who thrive with collaboration, not cut throat competition. It's in their generational archetype DNA. I brought this out in a post I wrote recognizing the similarities between Lady Gaga (and her music industry brethren) and the heroes of Normandy Beach - in which I compared the collaborative instinct of both groups. After all, they both come from the Hero Generation.

Those companies that recognize what you wrote will flourish and those that don't ... well, they probably won't be around long enough to even realize what they missed.

Again, great post.
08 Mar, 2011
Alicia Blain says: 
Hi Clay

I'm glad you enjoyed the article. I agree with you that companies that get what we're talking about will flourish. I think they will be the front runners in innovating in the 21st Century.

But I find that so many companies still fight what I think is the obvious. Leaders are still holding onto to outdated principles & resist experimenting with new ideas & techniques. Do you find that as well? Would love to hear your thoughts & those of others on that point!
08 Mar, 2011

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