If You Lose Your Subject Matter Expert, It Isn’t the End of the World. Or is it?

What is the value of your internal, proprietary corporate knowledge? What would it cost your company if you lose it?

It might be tough to quantify. Even if it is difficult to figure out what it might cost you to lose some of your valuable internal insight and intelligence, it is a worthwhile exercise. Just ask The Company itself – the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Central Intelligence Agency has found the cost of losing its internal subject matter expertise is quite worrisome. In fact, especially if you are the CIA whose name actually includes the word “intelligence”, losing vital subject matter expertise could prove to be bad news for the US. So much so, that The Washington Post devoted a feature article to the CIA’s intelligence deficit last week, Lack of Russia Experts has the US Playing Catch Up.

Briefly, the article says that after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the CIA put less effort into retaining its Russian intelligence experts and shifted its efforts to what it perceived to be the next threat, the Middle East. The article concedes that the CIA may have underestimated both the post-breakup power of its former Cold War rival as well as miscalculated whether we would remain on friendly terms. Oops.

Today, Russia and the US are growing increasingly hostile toward each other, and the article’s interviewees are concerned that the US no longer has the intimate intelligence it needs to make good decisions about how to handle our growing animosity. A US-Russian conflict has all the makings of a nuclear showdown. Threats are flying between the two superpowers, and it is clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin (ex-head of the Soviet CIA counterpart, the KGB) retained his US intelligence capability. Putin appears to know which moves to make, which veiled and not-so-veiled threats to lodge, to maneuver the global situation especially in cases where US and Russian interests diverge.

This quote from the article sums up the problem nicely:

“We’ve been surprised at every turn,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.). “We were surprised when they went into Crimea, we were surprised when they went into Syria.”


What Will It Cost Your Company To Lose Your Internal Experts?

Do you know the cost of losing your internal expertise? In the case of the US, our lack of retaining top drawer CIA Russian counterintelligence could mean nuclear winter for the planet.

Maybe losing your internal subject matter expertise isn’t exactly an extinction level event (ELE) for life as we know it on the big blue ball. However, it could have devastating effects on your bottom line – maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. It could be an ELE for your company.

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to put a precise value on the expertise held by your critical people. It may be tough to specifically quantify, but it is an exercise worth undertaking to find out exactly what you could lose, even if you can’t assign a monetary value to it. Specific subject matter experts’ internal proprietary knowledge impacts your long-term survival.

Lessons Learned from CIA’s SME Deficit

Private corporations have learned and adopted many strategies from our military, among them the post-event analysis we sometimes call Lessons Learned. As we reflect on the CIA playing catch up with Russian intelligence, let’s ponder the takeaways for private corporations, perhaps your own. Here are my top three:

  1. Retain personnel who know your markets, competitors and competitive advantages
  2. Critical long-term strategies don’t change quickly, so maintain and update your important knowledge sets
  3. Keep your core competencies alive even when a shiny new object requires a pivot

What would it cost your company to lose your critical knowledge? Can you put a dollar value on it? Or would it cost an important competitive advantage that could ultimately be your corporate extinction level event?


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