The blind spot most subject matter experts have - and what to do about it
Written by Alistair Gordon 30 Jan 2024

Senior technical leaders aspire to build the capability of their most technical experts (SMEs) to be more business rounded, and therefore much more valuable to the team and the organisation. But how does People & Culture support the development of these skills? New research from Expertunity – based on extensive survey data – might suggest the answer.

By Darin Fox, Head of Research, and Alistair Gordon, Head of Programs, Expertunity

One thing technical leaders constantly tell us is they seek to have subject matter experts (SMEs) on their team who are technically brilliant but also highly effective at interacting with the broader organisation.

These employees are few and far between and are worth their weight in gold.

The secret to their success is that they:

• Have taken the time to deeply understand their organisation, and the customers or community they serve.

• They strive to be the best in class, so focus on benchmarking their efforts against competitors or alternatives.

• Can speak the language of non-technical people.

In short, they demonstrate mastery of business acumen (or what at Expertunity we call Market Context).

The latest data suggests that the skills listed above are a blind spot for most technical experts (whether in engineering, finance, IT, or science).

The good news is that People & Culture leaders have some simple very low-cost options open to them to address this capability gap, and help technical heads retain key technical staff.

How big is the deficit in capability?

Using data we have analysed from assessments completed by stakeholders of 400 technical subject matter experts we’ve worked with in the last 18 months, market context/business acumen is the skill technical experts are least good at.

Figure 1 describes this “bottom 10” behaviours data gleaned from our 360-degree surveys of participants on our Mastering Expertship program.

Market Context behaviours account for 6 out of 10 of the lowest 10 rated behaviours in our model.


Source: Expertunity Research, Study of anonymised Expertship360 multi-rator survey data from 2023. N~434 surveys, n~4553 respondents, 373,000 data points.

So what is Market Context?

People & Culture leaders will recognise the Market Context behaviours in their most strategic and valuable experts. Market Context is the key to acquiring, retaining, refreshing, and deploying a wealth of contextual, organisational, competitive, and customer knowledge in order to shape better systems, solutions, products, and services.

The best expert performers not only possess an advanced understanding of the entire organisation but also exhibit a strategic, political, and business acumen that sets them apart from those experts trapped in their technical bubble. They navigate organisational intricacies, comprehend the competitive landscape, and forge connections with or about customers, all while staying ahead of emerging trends that could potentially influence future outcomes.

They are what we call Master Experts – demonstrating not only advanced technical proficiency but also are strategically aligned with the broader organisation and its customers/community.

Why is Market Context the lowest scoring capability?

There are several interconnected reasons. These include:

• SMEs have typically focused on improving expert skills and experiences – which is after all, their ticket to the game. Acquiring business acumen skills is not prioritised.

• Many SMEs aren’t convinced that business acumen is required to execute their role proficiently. They don’t understand how important understanding the big picture is.

• SMEs often find themselves operating in a technical and project bubble, where they are so busy delivering work and reports that they don’t have time to contemplate the bigger picture.

• SMEs are rarely proactive around discovering stakeholder needs. They tend to be stuck in reactive/project deadline mode.

Because of these factors, SMEs often find themselves less attuned to the broader organisation, sometimes being wrongly perceived as uninformed or, worse, disinterested.

Consequently, their value tends to be confined solely to their technical outputs, sidelining them from becoming holistic and indispensable contributors to the project vision, strategy and innovation initiatives.

This is the cycle senior P&C leaders, supported by OD and talent teams, should (and can) seek to break by having their technical superstars become organisational superstars – via a mastery of Market Context.

The good news is that some small efforts can harvest significant returns.

How do organisations develop market context skills in their most technical employees?

Senior technical leaders themselves can contribute to this learning by emphasising the importance of understanding the wider context of the organisation, and creating the opportunity for their technical stars to do this.

Senior technical leaders could, for example, commit to executing these three powerful, proven-to-work initiatives:

1. Become a champion of getting technical experts to understand how important market context can be to their work being more valuable and focused.

  • Regularly invite members of the organisation who interface with strategy, customers, and external stakeholders to come and talk to your group about their needs.

  • Ask SMEs to explore competitors (or global best practice same-purpose organisations if in the public sector), and report back on their positioning, competitive /efficiency advantage, strengths and weaknesses. Help them become students of the wider market.

  • Support their SMEs’ access to customer data, competitor insights, and strategic information held by other teams. Emphasise the importance of understanding the underlying rationale driving strategic decisions.

2. Embed an intimate understanding of strategy.

  • Rather than simply socialise the organisation’s strategy deck, discuss it in depth, ensuring the SMEs, however deeply technical, are able to articulate it and its connection to the work the they do.

  • Encourage SMEs to establish alliances with the strategy team. Help experts understand why this is the strategy.

  • Help SMEs explore how they could contribute to helping the organisation execute strategy.

3. Help SMEs start communicating with the wider organisation more effectively.

  • Motivate experts to practice translating their technical solutions into plain English descriptions that connect the solutions to strategy, customers/community and competitive/service advantage.

  • Regularly offer feedback on how they might fine tune their “pitch”.

Tools to help you help your SMEs overcome their blind spots

Over the past five years, Expertunity has developed a series of tools that support these learning initiatives. These include publications available for purchase, assessments, and learning programs. A synopsys of these tools is described here.


A lack of business acumen gets in the way of SMEs providing break-through solutions and services to their organisations.

A greater understanding of Market Context can help deeply technical specialists see the bigger picture, have more influence, add more value to the organisation, and they are more likely to stay.

Senior P&C leaders can with minimum effort and expense really move the needle for their SMEs by deploying and leveraging the ideas above, and the tools available from providers like Expertunity.

Further reading

How to use Expertship self-assessment to coach your technical team to develop their business skills

Explore deploying The Expertship 360.

Explore other articles on our blog for senior technical heads, The Technical Leader Blog.

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