Subject matter experts, affectionately known as SMEs, are a longstanding feature of the learning landscape. They have deep domain expertise that learning and development professionals turn to for specific content and information for training programs and performance improvement initiatives.
SMEs are key resources that have technical orientation. Their input is valuable when you want to replicate their knowledge or performance and magnify it by transferring it to others. When it works, it's pure magic. But too frequently, it falls short of its promise and the results are disappointing.
Given today's pressures to do more with less - and to do it all yesterday - learning professionals must re-think their relationship and approach to partnering with SMEs to make the best use of what SMEs can offer to the process.
These four strategies can help:
Do your homework
Typically, SMEs will fit the request for help into a full schedule of other priorities that include their ‘real' day-to-day work. It's important to honor their time by preparing in advance to tap their talents effectively and efficiently. Instructional designers and learning strategists who do this well tend to:
- Learn as much as possible about the topic in advance of working with an SME;
- Observe the process or skill in action to gain a general understanding of what's involved;
- Try it out for themselves to gain a visceral appreciation for the content and its complexities;
- Use all of this preparation and insights gained to formulate high-value questions and a targeted interview plan. According to many SMEs, the most disrespectful-and ineffective-prompt they are asked is "So, tell me what I need to know about what you do."
Make it mutual
Traditionally, the SME/learning professional relationship has been a one-way street. SMEs share their skills, talents, and knowledge. This information is captured, taken away and molded into instruction. End of discussion.
A better model for learning professionals is to start giving as well as getting. For instance, when the learning partner takes just a small amount of time to teach SMEs about instructional and training approaches, it not only makes the process transparent and offers some professional development to the SME. It could also serve to create whole new cadre of active training supporters in the field and help SMEs become more effective contributors to developing content in the future because of their expanded context.
Get ‘em ready for their close-up
Another approach for making the most of an SME's efforts is to introduce video into the process. While it might cost a bit more time and effort in the short-run, learning professionals can realize a significant return on the investment in several ways because video:
- Captures the SME's exact words and demonstrations accurately and completely;
- Reduces the need to return to SMEs for clarification or to repeat what was previously covered; and
- Provides instructional designers with powerful learning assets to include in live instructor-led programs, online training and/or self-paced performance support.
And just a quick note on video quality. Given our attraction to YouTube, Vine, and other social media video-sharing platforms, production value expectations have dropped dramatically over the past decade. Expensive equipment, professionally-lit sets and videographers are not necessary. A simple, well-framed, steady-handed video from an iPhone can generally meet the needs of instructional designers and the ultimate program.
Remember to review and recognize
In the rush to make the SME's wisdom available to needy learners, it's easy to forget this final step. But those who do it well develop a very positive relationship with SMEs and never seem to have a problem accessing the expertise they need.
Take time to allow SMEs to review final materials and provide input. This step respects their involvement in the process. It helps learning professionals make sure they got it right and acknowledges that their reputation is on the line. They'll feel good about how their contributions are reflected in the finished work.
When learning professionals apply these strategies they'll create effective (and cost-effective), relevant training that scales the talents of a few experts throughout the organization. They'll also create productive mutual partnerships and build a true learning culture by creating leagues of learning ambassadors throughout the organization.