How to Make Your Subject Matter Expert a Rockstar!

rockstar sme

*image courtesy of

Everyone wants to be a rockstar at some point in their lives. Corporate professionals are no different. Most of us will never get that chance, and probably don’t actually want it.  We just like to dream about it. What we’re really after is just a little recognition. We like that the company values our knowledge and expertise, and we enjoy talking about it and sharing with those who are interested. But most of this is seen as part of management’s responsibility.  Recognizing employees, and keeping employees motivated is their responsibility, not the training department’s…or is it? I don’t think many of us think of it from our unique perspective as training professionals. We should. And we will…right now.

Success This Way, Failure That Way

Our subject matter experts are the single gateway between success and failure.  And yet, in much of my “education”, and in many good books about our industry, SMEs are simply referred to as a resource. We talk about them like an ATM of knowledge, and how we will extract all of what we need quickly and efficiently. We learn how to craft surveys, and questionnaires. We learn how to interview SMEs to get all the information we need to create training content. We expect them to be okay with just handing over their content without anything in return but the promise of a course based on their intellectual property. And when we include them in our design processes we get frustrated with them because they “want to include everything and the kitchen sink”.   Nobody will ever teach you how to how to treat your SMEs like…well…people!

“e-Learning is NOT about Technology. It’s about people. The “e” stands for everybody!”

Do You Already Have Their Respect?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure all of you are quite nice to your SMEs and they are most likely quite cordial with you in return.  In fact, you may even have stopped reading already because you don’t see a problem with how you’ve dealt with your subject matter experts.  You may even think you already have the full respect of your SMEs and don’t need to change a thing.  Hurray for you! Nice work. But for the rest of us, a simple shift in thinking could very quickly turn a difficult situation into a major win for everyone involved.

And before I continue let me just confirm your suspicions that this does not apply to every SME, or every situation. Every situation is different. I simply feel compelled to share because I’ve had bad experiences of my own, and I’ve heard about so many more related to working with SMEs. And while you may not have had a bad SME experience yet in your career, I can assure you they exist.  Why am I so sure? Because what we do involves people, and people are emotional, and unpredictable, not the mindless “resource” our ISD (Instructional Systems Design) processes assume they will be. No! They’re people!

A typical scenario might go something like this:

Mrs. SME is identified as the “goto” person for topic-x in the company. She is more than willing to chat about her expertise with those willing to engage and eager to learn. She is happy conducting 1:1 Informal Training sessions because it’s a good feeling to be helpful and, as human beings, we enjoy engaging with other human beings about topics we love. But then the company grows larger and what was once fun becomes an interruption, a grinding chore, and begins to take away from Mrs. SME’s productivity. This is where the business learns an important lesson: 1:1 Informal Training does NOT scale.

This is when you get the call. “Hey training! We need a course on topic-x so Mrs. SME, and her team can focus on the work. We need it ASAP. Thanks!”

This is not the type of situation where a 6 weeks, or 6 months, ISD process is going to fly. Remember, you want to keep it simple, and provide business value. Turn off your ISD brain and just think “SIMPLE, and ADD BUSINESS VALUE”. And don’t forget that you’re dealing with people. Yes! The request is clear. Create a training course.  And yes, you are the best. And given the content, you will create something amazing.  But what about the SME? Sure, they don’t want the hassle of daily interruptions of informal 1:1 training requests, but they also don’t want to give up that part of the job that makes them feel so good.  Disconnecting the intellectual property from it’s owner, in my experience, is easier said than done. Even when they agree that your help is needed, letting go of the ownership and responsibility is hard. Taking this into account will change your perspective and make you a more successful, and empathetic training professional.

Iterative Training Development Process

One of the side benefits I’ve found with my version of an iterative training development process is that you provide immediate, consistent, and visible, business value while maintaining the SME’s company standing as the expert. And not surprisingly, the Litmos LMS was simple and flexible enough to support my iterative process. And this is how you begin to move your SME from expert to rock star.

Let Your SME Be The Focal Point!

front and center

*Image Courtesy of

Your new perspective puts the subject matter expert in the center of everything.  Your role is to simply support them. And yes this goes against everything you’ve been taught about designing eLearning. Let it go. You’re in the real world now, dealing with real people in a real business with many more variables to deal with than you were ever taught in school.

It’s go time! You have no team. You have yourself, a SME, an employee base hungry and eager to gain this knowledge, and management just wanting it done…NOW! What do you do? If you’re first thought is to build an elearning course, then do not pass go and do not collect $200(that’s a board game joke right there). At this point in the training content life cycle eLearning is not simple, or rapid, and does not add business value now.  A simple solution with added business value(including cultural acceptance) is the timeless classic: the instructor led classroom training event.

The classroom puts your SME front and center.  Even when a SME tells you s/he hates being in front of the classroom, they DO appreciate the prestige it offers them. Part of your job will be to reassure them how great they are doing.  And when they send you a slide deck with 100+ slides because they’ve included “everything and the kitchen sink”, you will tell them it looks great! Why? Because this training class is about THEM, not you. It’s about scaling up the informal 1:1 training they’ve provided the company so far.  That’s it…for now.  Don’t make it any more complicated than it needs to be.  Remember: Simple, added business value, and make the SME look like a rock star!

Trust Is Everything

You might be thinking to yourself that you could make the SME look SOOOoooo much better if only you could “help them with their slides”.  Don’t do it. Remember: This first event is NOT about you! The SME was successful in their informal 1:1 training conversations, so trust them to be good enough in a 1:many classroom training event.

Something that you may have missed in all of this is the work it takes to properly organize and facilitate an instructor-led classroom training event.  Working for the eLearning Guild taught me a LOT about event planning. If you think of your short 1 hour or 1 day training event like a mini conference event, then you start to take the logistics of planning a training event a little more seriously.

The logistics of ILT (Instructor-led Training) looks easy when its done right. And doing it right takes time, patience, and your undivided attention until you’ve mastered its execution, and then automated it, or delegated the responsibility to someone else. This is the selfish reason why you don’t want to worry about the content, and the SME at this point. You’ll be busy planning the event. You will need a room, A/V equipment for the presentation, a registration process, a tracking system, email invitations, a survey, chotskies, pens and paper, printed or digital materials, an assessment, announcements, a caterer, and video camera to record the session…and more.

The Most Important Part….

The most important part of making your SME into a rock star is making sure the event is well communicated, marketed, and runs without any issues. In a well executed training event, the logistics become almost invisible to the attendees, and that gives them a chance to focus 100% of their attention on the SME…the rock star. You will be amazed at how happy the business will be if you’ve paid attention to the details of the event.  No. It’s not what you went to school to learn, but it’s added value and impresses people more than your ISD skills ever will.

Even if you are in an established enterprise that has most of this in place, scaling up from informal 1:1 training straight to eLearning takes too long, holds the content hostage during the transition, and does not add business value.  You need a system that can support the transitions that occur during your iterative design process.

Making your SME a rock star is just a fancy way of putting them first and supporting their ego.  Your time will come soon enough.  Remember, that this is only the first transition this training content will go through in its life cycle. If you think of instructor-led training as the end game, then you are not thinking strategically. Starting with an ILT event shows the business that you can get it done and that you respect the employees enough to show quick, quality, results when asked.

Don’t worry so much. Your time to show off your media development and elearning development skills will come. In fact, this entire exercise is also the beginning of your design process. And yes, this is not how you were originally taught to do either.  Oops. Remember the real world I told you about? Yea, you’re still in it.

In a future blog post I will go into detail about how the ILT event is part of your design process as well as how making your SME look like a rock star is the beginning of your entry into rock stardom as well.