As you explore job roles, are you curious about the difference between a business analyst and a subject matter expert (SME)?
Are you unsure if your skills qualify you as a subject matter expert or a business analyst?
If you have proven yourself as a subject matter expert, a career as a business analyst could be a great next step for you and allow you to break into more interesting project work to steward lasting changes in your organization.
In this video, I’m sharing the difference between a business analyst and a subject matter expert and how you can potentially move from one to the other.
If you are interested in learning more about what it looks like to be a business analyst, you can sign up for our completely free workshop, Quick Start to Success, where you will:
- Get specific action steps to advance your career.
- Receive immediate access to the self-paced online workshop.
- Discover how to be more effective on any project.
Are you exploring job roles and wondering about the difference between being a business analyst and being a subject matter expert? Are you possibly a subject matter expert and wondering if you could actually be a business analyst or vice versa? A career as a business analyst can provide opportunities to somebody who has proven themselves in a subject matter expert role and can help you break into more interesting project work and have the opportunity to steward lasting changes in your organization. So keep watching to learn the differences between these two roles and how you can potentially move from one to the other.
Hi, I’m Laura Brandenburg with Bridging the Gap, where we help you start, succeed, and excel in your business analyst career with weekly videos on business analysis tips and techniques.
The Subject Matter Expert Role
The subject matter expert. Those are individuals who possess in depth knowledge and expertise in a specific industry or field. They are often considered the go-to person for information and advice on a particular topic. On a typical project, the business analyst will engage with many subject matter experts to understand the current business process and how the software solution that exists today is supporting that business process.
The SME, or subject matter expert, may also provide input into the challenges that they’re facing with their current processes and the solutions that are in place, and they may advocate for specific changes that they want to have put in place to support them in their department. The SME may also take on a leadership role with their department throughout the project training other department members on the new processes and technology and being the facilitator of change within their team.
Now what is the business analyst role? And we’ll talk about the business analyst role and then we’ll talk about the differences between the two and how to move back and forth.
The Business Analyst Role
Business analysts, on the other hand, are professionals who help organizations identify and solve problems. They analyze data and use various tools and methodologies to identify areas for improvement and to make recommendations for changes. At Bridging the Gap, we help business analysts who literally “bridge the gap” between business and technology stakeholders. This means they help ensure that the software solutions actually do what the business needs them to do and solve real business problems.
A business analyst doing this kind of work would use a technique like business process analysis to understand that business workflow and the problem to be solved. They would use use cases, wireframes, and user stories to analyze and define the software or functional requirements.
They would also use a variety of data modeling techniques to define how information is stored and flows through all the various software systems. This type of business analyst starts out a project by defining the needs or outcomes, takes it through to scope, defining the detailed requirements and collaborating with the business and technology teams to ensure a successful implementation of the requirements.
How Business Analysts and Subject Matter Experts Work Together
Now, how do these two roles work together? As a business analyst, you are going to work really closely with your subject matter experts across multiple departments to discover, analyze, and validate those requirements.
- The business analyst is typically responsible for leading the entire business analysis process for preparing requirements documentation, and managing change.
- The subject matter expert would review those requirements and may have a role in validating and approving the requirements documentation. They also provide a lot of input into the early stages of when the business analyst is gathering information about how processes work and how the systems work today.
It’s not uncommon, as a business analyst, to include a subject matter expert or many of them in your weekly meetings so that they are current on where the project is, and then maybe meet with them through one-on-one sessions to validate documentation and answer any questions that they might have about what’s coming.
SMEs provide incredible value to business analysts. I can’t emphasize this enough. Because they can provide in-depth information about how a department or a process works and can often bring up subtle nuances that a business analyst might not be aware of if they were not also a subject matter expert in that particular domain.
Many Business Analysts Get Their Start as Subject Matter Experts
As you grow in your business analyst career, you might start by being that expert in that domain. But as you grow, it’s important to grow into new areas. You need to be able to work with SMEs to kind of gain on the project expertise, so to speak. This is why many business analysts get their start as subject matter experts. Because you have a detailed understanding of the current business processes and systems, and it’s common as an SME to move into a more formal business analyst role.
In fact, many business analysts report falling in to a business analyst role after being assigned as a subject matter expert to a major IT project. Usually these are those big system migration projects, like moving from one accounting system or one customer management system to another, and you have a big role that takes up a significant amount of time and kind of co-ops your responsibilities for a while. In these cases, the role of SME and business analysts can get a little bit blurred, especially if you’re in an organization that does not have a formal business analyst practice, which is still common today.
Over time, the SME may become like the go-to person for the tech team when they have questions about the process or requirements. They might take on leadership and change management roles within their department and kind of be more of a liaison to the tech team than the doer within their department that got them into that role in the first place.
Also many business analyst job roles require specialized expertise in a business process and solution area. And that further creates confusion between these two roles. But there are some really key differences between a business analyst and a subject matter expert.
Key Differences Between a Business Analyst and Subject Matter Expert
While SMEs tend to focus on their field of expertise, their domain, the work that they do within the company, or have historically done within the company, a business analyst will focus on the organization or project as a whole and the role of the business analyst, as we’ve discussed. SMEs are often contributors to projects and might be brought in for their input, for reviews, for problem solving on a temporary basis during a project. The business analysts own that requirements process for the entire project, which may impact multiple different departments and have multiple different subject matter experts, and then typically fulfill that business analyst’s role. That is their full-time role or their contribution to the company.
Another difference is that once the project is done, the SME would typically go back to their “regular job” using the systems or executing the processes that have been defined. The business analyst will go on to work on a different project or initiative as a business analyst.
Moving From SME to Business Analyst
If you are an SME, or subject matter expert, and you’re looking to move into the business analyst role, here are a few quick tips that can help you get started. And these come right from my book, How to Start a Business Analyst Career. There’s a whole section in here on how to move from a business focused role into more of a business analyst role. And for those of you who might be techies, there’s also a whole section on how to move from a more technical focused role to a business analyst role because we see people come from both of those backgrounds.
So just a few of the things that I share in the book are to share your career intentions with the business analyst you work with, and offer to support them in business analysis activities, like capturing meeting notes, documenting requirements, or updating their requirements or engaging with your department. Just, “Anything I can do to help, just let me know. I’d be happy to support you.”
Also we’ll be looking at starting to analyze your department’s processes, even if this is not needed for an active project. Look for opportunities to analyze, document, and then improve the business processes. You could often do business process work outside of a project with no software improvement aspect.
Often significant improvements do come through software, but you could take ownership of what can we do just within our department in terms of how we work with other departments and how we are efficient with the tools that we have. So you don’t need to “get IT involved” to start doing business analysis.
A third opportunity is to lead a project in your department from beginning to end. And one other thing I want to add here is to look for opportunities to be outside your department because your ability to be successful as a business analyst is going to come from your subject matter expertise at first, but also your ability to understand the bigger picture of what’s happening in your organization and be able to represent other departments that you aren’t necessarily an expert in and at least understanding how your work within your department affects other departments and how that flow works is a first step. But really gaining any exposure outside your area of the company will be a great step just to having that more global perspective that will make you a great business analyst.
Start YOUR Path to Success
If business analysis is a career that you want to pursue, the absolute best next thing to do is to join my free Quick Start to Success Workshop. In that workshop, you will learn more about the business analyst career path as well as details about the business analysis process framework that will give you the structure that you need to manage your day and your projects appropriately.