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Can collaboration build subject matter expertise? We think so.


At my [Resa] first emergency medicine position leading a clinical ultrasound section, I noticed the impact of organizing a monthly educator series. It started out as a fun way to invite friends to visit me in New York City. Win-win: I could amplify their expertise, they met my team who expanded their networks, and my friend could add a line item to their résumé. At the same time, the resident doctors and early-career learners gained small-group-style education and an audience with nationally known subject-matter experts. In reality, the series became so much more. The sessions were opportunities for collaboration I had not anticipated: research projects, policies and publications, regional workshops, and speaking invitations that went both ways. Without realizing it, these collaborations helped me establish expertise in ways I never imagined. I have since continued the monthly series concept everywhere I have worked.

We have spent a lot of time thinking about how to develop subject matter expertise. After reading books, listening to podcasts, speaking with peers, watching people, and reflecting on our own careers, we have discovered one fundamental truth: subjective matter expertise is not one grand skill. Building subject matter expertise requires incorporating many tiny actions that cumulatively make a big, lasting impact. We call these microskills, and we know collaboration is one microskill that will help you build your expertise.

Working with other people unlocks new perspectives and transforms less mature skills into evolved ones. If you do not feel particularly experienced, then it allows you to learn from and work directly with someone who holds the experience you seek. Collaborations help you establish a professional reputation, develop skills in communication, and learn to be a good team member. It is a straightforward way to build your network within your office and company. And with the help of virtual platforms and social media, collaboration builds national and international networks. Finally, collaborating allows established and new contacts to witness your journey to subject matter expertise.

To be clear, working with others is not always easy. You may have a small network and you may hesitate to reach out. People are busy, can be unresponsive, and hard to access. In an industry like health care, the hierarchy may preclude experienced people from working with young or inexperienced people. Finally, we acknowledge that some people want to do everything on their own, and they simply are not interested in collaboration.

Here are three critical collaboration actions we suggest you take to build subject matter expertise:

Identify opportunities. As you learn more about your field, you will realize areas in which an area can grow. As you attend lectures or listen to podcasts, find the holes in arguments. This means there is room for someone to investigate further or solve unanswered questions. Develop a working knowledge of what is already done and optimized, and make a list of where you see deficits. These are your opportunities.

Identify a collaborator. Start with one person. Based on your gaps and needs, reach out to a person with whom you wish to work. Email, social media, or another professional channel, such as a listserv or newsletter can work as a scouting device. If someone you know knows the person, then request an email introduction. Be careful, respectful, and intentional when you ask for an introduction. Don’t expect the same person to introduce you to everyone in their network. Then, be receptive to being the one to whom people later reach out.

Find your community of practice. Search online for events in a particular area. Join social media groups. You want to be where similar experts are, and at the very least, observe the conversation. Adaira participates online with a few writing communities. Resa participates online with a few spoken and written storytelling and podcast communities. You may want to engage by sending a request to connect or follow or a direct message or by responding to a discussion. Join or apply for training programs in your field or interest. All of this puts you closer to like-minded individuals and an opportunity to collaborate and share expertise.

Resa E. Lewiss and Adaira Landry are emergency physicians.


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