Subject Matter Experts: The Heroes of The Training World

hero-SME-iStock_000001785848_smallSubject matter experts come in many different varieties. You will encounter many different personalities in your career as a Training professional. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can master one process for engaging and interacting with them. The instructional design industry will tell you that the needs of the learner must always come first. And in many cases I would enthusiastically agree. However, after a long career developing training in many different industries I can tell you that it’s a little more complicated than that.  Embracing the needs of the Subject Matter Expert first in many situations feels counterintuitive, but builds social influence and trust that pays off in the long run.

Not All Subject Matter Experts Are Equal

Different professionals attract certain personality types. And yes, it’s easy to generalize.  For example, let’s look at the typical engineer. If you’ve ever worked within a community of engineers, then I probably don’t even need to go on.  Just mentioning that your subject matter expert is an engineer conjures up images of a shy, perhaps socially awkward, guy or gal: The stereotypical geek or nerd as portrayed in comic strips, movies, and television shows. Just writing this brings me images of Sheldon Cooper (character on Big Bang Theory) attempting to teach a university course.

But I can assure you that not all engineers fit the profile. Some are quite gregarious and even, dare I say, flamboyant. My point is that instead of creating an elaborate process that treats all subject matter experts alike, you should engage and interact with them as an important part of your organizational eco system.  Prior to social media this would have been difficult and a burden on your training department resources. But with social media today it’s easier than ever to engage and maintain relationships with both your learners and the subject matter experts they require.

Many SMEs are more than happy to teach what they know for an hour to an interested audience. And many that are a little shy can be talked into it if you can gain their confidence and assure them you will handle all of the logistics and help them create their content if necessary. You new job is to make them a star on the internal corporate stage. Think of yourself as a hollywood talent promoter. Making your SMEs rockstars by boosting their visibility and accessibility helps them, the company, and you.

The SME Relationship Has Changed

In many cases you will be asked to create training on topics that are foreign to you. In my early years as an instructional designer that meant many many meetings with SMEs attempting to understand what information is most important and how best to deliver that content to new learners. It meant lots of trial and error in the design phase accompanied by a long arduous review process. And lots of test courses run to see if the content was correct and delivered effectively. This test, adjust, and repeat design/development process would often take months before a course would “go live” and the learners would finally be exposed to the content. As technology and business has changed over the years, so should we.

Those days are long gone. Business moves too fast for us to enjoy the luxuries of 6 month course design cycles. In a 21st century economy learning responsibilities have largely shifted to the learners. This, in turn, shifts how we should be viewing our role in the organization.  Our new role as knowledge broker requires speed as our primary source of value. And the responsibility for content quality largely shifts to the SME.  So, the sooner you can connect a SME to a learner, the more value you bring to the organization.  And the sooner you can scale up that SME’s content to be delivered to the masses the sooner your value increases as well. And again, this is why promoting your SMEs and their efforts is good for everyone.

Love Your SMEs Now More Than Ever!

Scaling up a SME from one-on-one training to one-to-many is easier than ever, but it requires more interaction from your SME.  And your success is tied directly to their willingness and ability to share what they know, and create content in the form of powerpoint slides or other material. Instead of a one-size fits all approach, the 21st century training professional needs to understand each of his SMEs individually and design training solutions accordingly. And this is one of the many new elements trainers will need to embrace. But what does that look like?

As mentioned above, some of your SMEs will be very good at teaching.  Others may not. Some may think they are good at teaching but fall short based on audience feedback. At the early stages this doesn’t really matter. The key is in their willingness to try. If you can encourage a SME to share what they know in ANY format, you’ve won half the battle. And this is why you need to work hard at building these relationships.

Learners no longer make the training department their first stop when they are in need of new skills or knowledge because they too have a direct connection to the SMEs. SMEs are the new heroes of the training world because they have the ability to bypass the training department and go directly to the learner. But this does not make the training department unnecessary or irrelevant. It does, however, change our focus on the value we bring to the organization.  Our job is to support and enhance what SMEs and learners can achieve on their own.

The perfect learning ecosystem involves a strong relationship between training/learning professionals, SMEs, and learners. Of course this relationship is not new.  What’s new is how we engage with each other. And a SaaS based learning management system like Litmos is the perfect tool for embracing your move into 21st century learning.