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

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.

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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.

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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.

    Regards.

  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

    SME:
    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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