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 it’s 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 wasn’t something that they learned in school or from their parents.  Working collaboratively is something Millennials do naturally.  I often think it’s 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. It’s important that you not jump to the conclusion that Millennials can’t think or do things on their own.  They can but they prefer not to.  They are wired to understand that in today’s 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 can’t do this as an SME but you can if you are part of a Collaborative Group.

In the future don’t be surprised if SMEs are replaced by Collaborative Groups.  I’ve seen them in action and they are very effective.