What is the Difference Between a Subject Matter Expert and a Business Analyst?

Reader question:

Can you briefly explain the differences between a subject matter expert and a business analyst?

The Business Analyst Role

While the Business Analyst role can vary widely from one organization to another, typically the business analyst is responsible for the deliverables of a project – the beginning, middle, and end.  The business analyst is also responsible for many areas of the project – the scope assessment, risk assessment, process mapping, business cases, use cases, and business process documentation.

The Subject Matter Expert Role

Most Business Analysts are not working within the business that is asking them for help with change or introduction of a new product.  This is where your SMEs or subject matter experts come in.

A Subject Matter Expert (or SME) is typically assigned to a project to provide information about how the business works today, or what changes are being requested as part of a project.

They invaluable for understanding how the change will affect the department, and how to introduce change so that it will be received in the most positive way.

How Business Analysts and Subject Matter Experts Work Together

When I am learning about a change in a company, how a department works, how a process works – I want to talk to the SMEs because they know the inner workings of the department from the bottom up.

Often they have started at an entry level position (not always) and worked their way up so that they fully understand how their team works, how the processes work, what works and what doesn’t and the subtle nuances that we as Business Analysts need to be aware of to ensure we don’t miss requirements.

As a Business Analyst, you’ll work closely with your Subject Matter Experts to discover, analyze, and validate the requirements.

It’s not uncommon to include SMEs in your weekly meetings so that they are current in where we are, and then one-on-one sessions to validate documentation and answer questions.

Common Career Path: SME to Business Analyst

Because Subject Matter Experts have a detailed understanding of the current business processes and systems, it’s a common career path for a subject matter expert to move into a formal business analyst role. In fact, many business analysts report “falling in” to business analysis after being assigned as a subject matter expert on a major IT project.

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11 thoughts on “What is the Difference Between a Subject Matter Expert and a Business Analyst?”

  1. Michelle Swoboda

    Hi Walid,
    Normally the business analyst follows a path of the following deliverables, although each organization can add or subtract from those items.
    Stakeholder analysis, Business Requirement Document, As is process, To be process, Fit Gap analysis, Training plan, Change management plan, Test plan and scripts, Use cases, Successful user acceptance testing, training documentation, requirements traceability matrix.
    Best regards, Michelle

  2. Hi,
    I’m walid ward (business analyst) i was software developer for 10 years and converted to BA , i want to know what the deliverables (documenst ) in SDLC.
    in different satges of the project , what the BA present (SRS/FRS/BRS….etc) ?, to whom?, who will review & approve ?,

    please masters , i need help or any link has descripes these things to me.

  3. Michelle Swoboda

    Pdte, it sounds like you are very much on the right track. It is interesting, I see the SME role as leading into the BA role rather than the other way around. You are correct that the BA should carry more weight in decisions on the project and have the vision. The business however still owns the changes (usually) and so the SME is representing the business.
    I love to know a lot about my business but I would prefer to be the BA rather than the SME. I am finding that different companies value BAs in different ways. Currently the firm I work for seems to view as a note takers and meeting arrangers – totally missing the value we can give them. So they are learning with me 🙂

  4. Hi Team,

    Let me first admit that I have an immense respect for the role of SME on a project. I totally respect their knowledge/contribution in drafting a solution to a business problem associated with their domains. However I just get into clueless state when I am expected to provide SME inputs when actually I am a BA. Be it Business BA or IT BA , both carry same passion to meet with the end to end solution. Yes, We have our own set of strengths/weaknesses. But we belong to same fraternity at the end of day. Being SME is altogether different thing. I feel that I do not carry that authority as a BA to dictate/guide on domain knowledge. I might do my research/analyse/suggest ; but I am not a SME.
    We can plan to become a SME as our next career move if we want. But it is strictly a personal choice. I think floating across into different domains to get diverse exposure would suit my career goals better.
    Michelle, you are right in guessing (:-)…)that I could be termed as IT BA as I evolved into this role but originally came from technical background.
    Pushpak , You are correct that in many cases solutions are just ready and what you needs is customization from new client perspective. But I am not quite sure,how come a SME would be able to guide the system customizations considering all the Interfaces/aligned systems impacts/system architectures etc. It is not what they design daily. It is not what they read about on their weekends.
    I totally Second CJ Allen on his/her views.
    So ideally I would say that every role contributes to a project to make it successful. Hope we all can make significant contributions with our own strengths rather than having preference of one group over the another. Hope I am on right track 🙂
    …It is interesting to discuss this… I appreciate diverse views…It helps me grow.


  5. Pushpak Bhattacharya

    The discussion is getting interesting and though provoking.

    Yes, as Pdt mentioned, in India most of the time (at least for most of the Medium and small projects) the BA role is dome by SME. The main reason from my experience for this is that normally the solution is already sold when the project is started like the customer has already decided which modules and what product it want to use and the work left is to map the business process with the system and implement. In-fact most of the BA work at least at the high level is done during the pre-sales time and the solution demo etc is also completed at that time.

    As Michelle pointed out, knowledge, whether from previous experience or from other sources is helpful for BA and for some cases for IT analysis it may be essential also. For a pure business BA role perspective, I feel knowledge of best practices and experience in similar business process is really helpful,more where there is a need for re-engineering or designing of new business processes.

  6. Michelle Swoboda

    What a great discussion this is and Pdte has added a different view. If I am understanding correctly – this is the IT BA question. I have found in my experience that the IT BA is in a different category that a business BA. Due to their knowledge of systems – managers do seem to choose them over true business BAs. I don’t know whether that is wrong or right – it is right for whatever business they are in – but it is difficult for those BAs with only a business background to get into IT. I always thought that was an area that I had to grow in but lately I am being told by interviewers that the true business BA is valuable too. It is curious to me that all courses that I have taken as a BA have been directed towards IT BAs.

  7. Dear Team,

    In India , I see this as bottleneck many a times with the opportunities available. Here BA is mostly considered as SME or the one who is planning for SME as his next career move. I have a opinion that these are clear cut two different roles. Also even though you spend some time in specific domain, the work which you do could be very well could be in lines with that organisation context. It can not be termed as Global knowledge for that industry/domain. I agree that you must be in better position to asses things many a times if you have that background.
    So I don’t understand why always a person with domain knowledge but with no Business Analysis knowledge is preffered as BA for developing application systems than a BA with enough technical background but with relatively low domain knowledge but good analytical skills.
    I honestly believe , be it any business, It has some basic rules/guidelines under which it operates. Also If you do some reasearch you can get some understanding of the industry. Plus you should be able to ask framework questions like processes involved, stakeholders, roles , responsibilities, Interfaces, driving factors/triggers, bottlenecks,basic project vision, AS-IS scenario. Also in case there is a need, you can dive into it for further information provided someone is having it should be assigned or be ready to help you out.
    Kindly throw some pointers regarding how this perspective of prefering only specific domain people as a BA can be tackled with.

  8. Michelle Swoboda

    Great responses from both Pushpak and CJ. Interesting to see how we all view these roles differently – due to our unique experiences with the companies that we work with.
    On Linkin, Vincent had posted that a SME will lose the vision of the future and fall easily back into present mode. I agree, the BA is the one to push forward with the future vision.
    How do we all keep the future vision in our stakeholder’s minds?

  9. Pushpak Bhattacharya

    Hi Reader,

    A nice question. I feel best way to answer is to define what is the role and responsibility for the BA & SME.

    Business Analyst:
    As per BABOK Business analysis is the set of tasks and techniques used to work as a liaison among stakeholders in order to understand the structure, policies, and operations of an organization, and to recommend solutions that enable the organization to achieve its goals. So a BA is some one who is involved with the whole or substantially whole of the project understanding how organizations function to accomplish their purposes, and defining the capabilities an organization requires to provide products and services to external stakeholders

    A SME is a person who has in-depth knowledge of a topic or are of the business or solution. From customer side this can be the end user or stake holder who has complete knowledge of that area of the business and may be the solution owner once implementation is over. From the project implementer side this can be a person who is an expert of the solution or software. Most of the time this person will be responsible for delivery of the solution based on the business requirement captured by the BA

    I hope this helps you to understand the difference between the BA & SME

  10. In many organizations Business Analysts are SME’s (or quickly become SME’s after a project or two). This is when the relationship gets shaky. As a BA, keeping an enterprise-wide view of the organization will allow you to perform higher quality analysis and requirement gathering for future projects. One fear I had early on in my career was to be “type-casted” as a BA for [insert functional area here]. This will eventually limit the projects you’ll be exposed to, and may result in the tools in your BA toolbox becoming dull.

    Identify your SME’s early and engage them often. Leverage their knowledge and expertise to identify AS-IS processes, constraints, and goals. They are your number one resource in understanding the domain to the level you need <– Important: don’t dive too far into the weeds – gather only the information needed to perform the appropriate analysis. Items like obscure exception processing scenarios should not be retained in your brain. Instead, these items should be captured along with the name of the appropriate SME. My advice to upcoming BA’s would be to avoid becoming an SME in any area other than in Analysis, Requirements Gathering, Enterprise Architecture, etc. Don’t be type-casted; keep your consultative type role intact.

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