Subject Matter Experts
(SUB-jekt MAA-tur X-purtz)
What is a Subject Matter Expert?
A subject matter expert (SME) is an individual who has a deep understanding of a specific subject and can be paired with someone who focuses on learning & development to produce the best possible training outcomes.
Other Common Names for Subject Matter Experts
Other common names for subject matter experts include:
- Domain experts
In your organization, a subject matter expert could have almost any title you can imagine. You may need to engage people with the titles:
- Field Engineer
- Customer Support Specialist
- Operations Manager
- Data Entry Specialist
How do I work with a subject matter expert?
You probably get the idea that a subject matter expert isn’t defined by their job title, but the confidence that an organization has that this person can speak to the subject matter. What can you to do verify that you or someone you plan to work with is a subject matter expert? Try this SME checklist from Heather Snyder at Endurance Learning.
The core properties of Subject Matter Experts include:
- Significant experience, education, or expertise on a specific topic
- Few (if any) official job responsibilities that include “help other people put together a training program based on your expertise.”
Resources From The Train Like a Champion Blog
- Working with SMEs – Working with SMEs can be a blessing and a curse. They bring tremendous knowledge and experience, but sometimes it’s difficult to get them to narrow things down for a 1- or 2-hour training program.
- Helping SMEs Become More Effective Presenters through Communities of Practice – Great insights from Darlene Brady Christopher, Senior Knowledge and Learning Officer with the World Bank, who shared her experiences with a program that has seen great success converting SMEs to more effective presenters.
- How Bob Pike Would Help An SME Out Of A Jam – See how Bob Pike responded to a case study.
- When SMEs Know Best: A Case Study of Instructional Design/SME Collaboration – If you are an SME or work with SMEs this type of case study may help you see both sides of the engagement between L&D and SME.
- Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are Just Like PowerPoint – This is not a criticism. Both are an important part of the L&D process.
How can you help SMEs Be Better Presenters?
When we think of the lack of instructional design skills of an SME, it’s tempting to make them sit through a train the trainer or presentation skills program to improve their presentations. Maybe there’s a better, less intrusive way to help SMEs design presentations.
See how Brian combines two elements to dramatically improve the training performance of SMEs.
Insights about SMEs/Subject Matter Experts
CLOSELY RELATED ELEMENTS
Dialogue EducationDialogue education is an element that can make the difference between a boring lecture and an effective, engaging presentation. Helping a subject matter expert identify the importance of principles such as immediacy (how will the information help solve a problem tomorrow?); ideas, feelings, and action (how can you connect concepts, emotions and actions?); and engagement of the learners (how do you get learners to be active participants in their learning?) can lead to a positive experience for both presenter and learner.
Instructional DesignIntegrating key instructional design steps that help to activate learners’ prior knowledge, giving them an opportunity to discuss or experiment with your subject matter expert’s content, can make the difference between interesting information and a presentation that learners will remember and act upon.
Not everything will be covered or answered during one training program. If your subject matter expert is willing to share contact information, the interactive element of email can be an important tool to allow learning, curiosity, and questions to flow after the program has finished. A subject matter expert may not always be available or may not always be the most appropriate person to present to your learners. If that is the case, you could instead:
- Show a video. Subject matter experts generally make money for your company by doing things other than presenting in front of groups. Capturing a SME on film allows you to control their message in a tightly packaged video and frees them from the burden of repeatedly needing to appear in front of a training class.
- Share an article or case study. There may be times when you’d like to bring the voice of some of the smartest people in the world into your training program, but unfortunately you don’t have them on speed dial. Finding an article (that you have permission to distribute) or a case study on the topic can bring an outside, expert voice into your training program without the hassle of turning over your lavalier.
- Take the mic. As long as you have some degree of mastery with the content, you don’t necessarily need a subject matter expert to present. Combining good instructional design, facilitation skills, and subject matter knowledge can provide your learners with a sound foundation. However, one note of caution—make sure you don’t rely on your facilitation skills to overcompensate for a lack of knowledge about a topic. According to research published in Training Industry magazine, “If trainers don’t master the content they are delivering, that weakness could overshadow their delivery skills” (El Kholy 2017).
Other Sources of Information on Subject Matter Experts
- Managing the Unmanageable Subject Matter Expert – Learning Solutions Magazine outlined some strategies for working with SMEs
- How to Deal with The 5 Types of Subject Matter Experts – It may be accurate to call these 5 types of subject matter experts that are difficult to work with. Many SMEs will be amazing partners to the L&D team. But these 5 do exist.
- 6 Tips for Working with your Subject Matter Expert – These are 6 really basic principles for working with SMEs that wouldn’t be bad to read every few months or as a refresher before every meeting with an SME!
How to be a good SME on an L&D Project
Most articles focus on how to work with SMEs. If you are new to a learning and development project as an SME, you can read up on what your responsibilities are as an SME.