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Subject Matter Experts vs Peer-to-Peer

February 19, 2009

There is something wrong with the language we use to talk about content creators in a social learning world.  We need to start thinking about new ways to describe SME’s (subject matter experts).  We also need to think about new ways to describe user-generated content.  As a result of naming conventions, SME content sounds way more official and higher quality than user-generated content.  UGC immediately suggests informal and thus lower quality.

The reality of course is that in the workplace, everyone is an expert in something, and more often than not, the UGC will be written and submitted by someone who is, at a minimum, conversant with the material and perhaps even a legitimate expert in it.  This is supported by lots of data that suggests that people don’t contribute all that much in a community setting unless they have a certain level of self-efficacy which is a combination of confidence in the material, confidence in themselves, and an understanding of the tools.  So it’s pretty likely that most contributors to blogs, discussions, and the like will know a fair bit about what they are contributing.

This does not diminish what a SME knows or contributes, but it does suggest that perhaps there is a bit of a false dichotomy.  The real issue is not that a SME is an expert above all other experts, but rather that they are officially sanctioned to speak and communicate company policy, procedure, or opinions.  Going forward, this split between official and approved communication vs unofficial expertise is going to emerge as the real distinguishing factor between SME and UGC creator.  And I think it’s time for us to start thinking about language and terms to support this reality.

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