Subject Matter Experts & the Theory of Relativity

The term “subject matter expert” (SME) started as a quick and easy description of anyone with specialized knowledge who worked with software developers. Such persons might not possess specialized expertise in information technology itself, but would be much more knowledgeable than the average person in the many fields in which the software will be used. Over time, the SME term has evolved to mean anyone with special expertise in a particular topic. In many instances, the person designated an “SME” might not even consider himself or herself to be a true “expert,” as that term is generally understood. However, he or she does know more about the relevant subject area than others who are responsible for gathering and collating the information needed for a specific project. So the SMEs are in fact experts, relatively speaking.

Another term that has become all too familiar is “reinventing the wheel.” If the leader of a project, a federal agent, or a manager is working on a project, case, or program involving an area in which he or she has either no or only limited knowledge, the information he or she needs usually is available on the internet. However, locating that data may well take a considerable amount of time and require pulling together bits and pieces of information to create the “big picture” needed for the context of the specific project or case on which the non-expert is working. In most cases, simply being able to talk with someone whose background is in the same field can save considerable time and a great deal of effort. What this means, in essence, is that it is almost always easier to find the “wheel” than to build one from scratch – and perhaps risk leaving out one or more important aspects of the topic.

InfraGard – The Early Years

In 1996, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was working on a case in Cleveland, Ohio, that involved the then fairly young field of information technology (cyber). At that time, the FBI Cyber Division was not yet in existence. However, as the designated federal domestic law enforcement agency, the FBI has always been the federal agency assigned the responsibility for investigating many types of crimes. In the not-so-distant past, of course, cyber was not well understood as a developing technology – nor were the many ways in which it could be used for criminal purposes. Therefore, the agents working the cyber case in Cleveland met with private sector SMEs in information technology in order to further their case.

These relationships helped the FBI significantly and led to the creation of a new professional organization, InfraGard, which over the next few years quickly expanded to all FBI field offices across the country. Individual chapters were established and the organization’s membership grew rapidly. Although the principal focus of InfraGard in the early days was primarily on cyber security itself, the organization has expanded its fields of interest over the years to include all infrastructure sectors.

That rapid expansion may have been the result of two driving factors: (a) cyber security has become a major concern within all sectors of the nation’s public and private sectors alike; and, (b) the public-private partnership model in which the private sector is a key player in matters of national security has proved to be very successful. Today, the organization’s membership consists largely of the owners and operators of the critical infrastructure – including, of course, the SMEs working in their various sectors. More formally, InfraGard is known today as a public-private partnership between the FBI and the private sector owners and operators of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

As InfraGard grew to include thousands of members across the country in many different sectors, it became obvious that the organization would experience either: (a) a major challenge (to ensure that local chapters served the disparate interests of the members); or (b) a welcome opportunity to develop a formal structure in which its members could both gain additional expertise and contribute more effectively. Taking it as an opportunity, the organization itself could become more effective as well.

Sector Chiefs – Organizing & Connecting

Some of the InfraGard chapters recognized this opportunity quickly and created various ways to organize their membership in a logical manner. One result was the “Sector Chief” initiative, which was created in the Kentucky chapter in 2003. In simplest terms, this initiative involves organizing the membership by critical infrastructure sector and appointing a sector chief for each to represent them. For the Kentucky chapter, that requirement resulted in an increase in membership, greater participation in meetings, an improved integration with local organizations, and even the development and execution of sector-specific tabletop exercises. The methodology used by the Kentucky chapter was shared in 2004 with other chapters – some of which already had similar structures in place. Other chapters used the Kentucky model to establish their own Sector Chief programs.

Over the past several years, InfraGard has continued to grow and the FBI has recognized the benefits realized by chapters that have a Sector Chief program in place. Therefore, the program that started as a private sector initiative will soon be implemented by all chapters with the support of the FBI coordinators assigned to each chapter.

As the Sector Chief model expands, it also seems inevitable that there eventually will be regional sector chiefs connecting chapters across the nation. If and when this happens, those in a specific sector in the southeast region of the United States, for example, will have a quick and effective way to connect and communicate with other InfraGard members in the northwest and other regions. This new capability will not only help those seeking an SME to provide the missing context needed for a specific project or individual case, it also will benefit all InfraGard members who have a need to collaborate with other InfraGard members anywhere in the country.

External Benefits of Partnerships

Additional benefits also have been realized by organizations outside of the FBI. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to cite but one example, provides Protective Security Advisors (PSAs) across the country with a mission to assist in expanding and improving the protection of critical infrastructure. The DHS PSAs become members of InfraGard and have direct interaction with the other InfraGard members.  Therefore, they are able to connect more easily with the SMEs without having to reinvent the wheel.

In addition to the obvious benefits provided to the FBI and DHS, there are many ways in which the nation’s other public and private sector agencies – state fusion centers and governors’ offices, for example – can be helped by various InfraGard chapters. Perhaps of greatest importance, though, is that InfraGard continues to benefit its own members by, among other things, giving them immediate access to other SMEs, additional training opportunities, and informational documents on sector-specific threats/vulnerabilities. In these and many other ways, InfraGard members will have the continuing opportunity to contribute to their local, state, and national security in meaningful ways that only they, as the subject matter experts, can.

Sheri Donahue

Sheri Donahue is cyber security and strategic partnerships director for Humana Inc. in Louisville, Kentucky (KY). She previously served as: program manager for security and intelligence at the Indian Head Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center; director of customer support for DisastersNet Inc.; managing director of the INMA; and executive director and president of the Cyber Conflict Studies Association (CCSA) at the Norwich University Applied Research Institutes. She also served, for 16 years, as an engineer and special programs manager for the Department of the Navy. She has been with InfraGard since 2003, served on the National Board from 2004 to 2012, and has been national president since 2012. As a member of the KY InfraGard chapter in 2003, she co-created the first Sector Chief Program.



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