The Learner, The SME, and The Trainer: A Training Partnership for Success!


Have you ever asked your target audience of learners how they prefer to learn? Given the choice, would they prefer a day long training session or a self-paced online experience? You can probably guess how most would answer.

It depends!

And yes, I’m one of those people. There are a great many topics and/or skills that I would love to learn, and I would prefer a face-to-face experience with an instructor…and other students. But there are other topics and/or skills that I’m perfectly content learning on my own through trial and error, and the magic of the internet.

Delivering training is not as black and white as it once was. But it doesn’t need to be mind numbingly complex either.

It can be as simple as Learners, SMEs, and Trainers. These are the only 3 roles you need to create effective training.

(Please send your “You’re SO wrong!” emails to

Let’s address a couple cases where 2 instead of 3 of these roles exist.

The Learner and the Subject Matter Expert

In some cases you only need the Learners and the SMEs to get together. In fact, this is the most common corporate learning scenario. It’s often referred to as informal learning or social learning. This partnership is adhoc and driven most often by the learner. It also occurs with or without a training team in place. But would this type of learning experience come up as an answer to the question above? Probably not.

From the learner’s perspective it might be quite nice to have a subject matter expert available to support your learning. But a working SME still needs to get his job done and can only commit small amounts of time to the task of training others. This type of learning partnership is unbalanced, and unsustainable. It’s also slow and possibly inconsistent.

So even though I might prefer a 1:1 training session with a subject matter expert, I also know it’s unrealistic for many reasons.

The Learner and SME/trainer

In other cases the trainers are also subject matter experts which is why they ended up in the training department. And therefore, you only need 2 people to create effective training with one playing the role of both trainer and SME. This setup gives the SME/trainer an opportunity to focus entirely on training others and brings a greater sense of balance to the partnership between the SME/trainer and the learner.

However in this scenario scaling up is also limited. The SME/trainer can certainly handle more than a few 1:1 training sessions as well as delivering formalized scheduled courses throughout the year. But in this case we still hit the limits of one human being. One SME/trainer still reaches his/her limit of effectiveness pretty quickly. And they often tend to focus more on the content then on the needs of the learner.

So, even though I may be thoughtful enough to see 1:1 as unrealistic, I may also be to impatient to wait for the availability of a SME/trainer.

The Learner, the SME, and the Trainer

Now we’re left with trying to balance our resources and maximizing our training impact across an organization and/or customer base. I’m not saying that the 2 cases mentioned above are wrong in any way. Both cases continue to occur long after larger, more formalized, training departments have been formed. And if you’re managing this formalized training department you should consider incorporating both cases into your strategy. But I digress.

The learner, the SME, and Trainer are a well suited threesome. But putting these players into practice does not mean what you might think. I’m not talking about a three person team made up of a representative learner, a SME, and one person from the training team. You will obviously have many people representing the needs of your learner, and you may or may not have multiple people who can be your SME for a given topic. And for the role of trainer, you may have an eLearning developer, a classroom facilitator, an instructional designer, or a team of players from the training department. Remember, it depends.

The main point here is that creating a successful training solution requires thoughtful consideration of these roles and the people who are in them. Just because one seemingly simple training solution worked for one company does not mean it is the best solution for yours. The people playing the roles within your company are different than the people playing the same roles in the other company.

Everything we do as training professionals is first and foremost, about people. The technology supports and enhances what the people will do and how they do it. Think about how you might design your next course around the needs of these 3 roles and tell me about it.