Since we don’t have the ability to read minds, enabling us to learn quickly from experts, we must settle for subject matter experts (SMEs), who can help us understand what employees need to learn to reach the desired outcomes and how to sequence that training effectively.

Among the actors in training development, the subject matter expert is second in importance only to the business owner, who provides the funding for the process. If you don’t have a subject matter expert available for your training development project, the project team is not complete, and it’s incumbent on the team to select someone to become the SME through self-education, to hire or contract with an SME, or to purchase content in which the SME expertise is already “baked in.”

Content produced without the benefit of a strong SME feels bland and unremarkable. It’s the result of a system designed to turn any starting content into training, but without the SME, the raw materials can’t make truly great training.

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

The SME is the person who knows the information that everyone needs to know. They come from all walks of life and all areas of the organization. Some SMEs have years of experience and are now in management or leadership roles. Others are what lean transformation practitioners would call the “gemba” – that is, they are the people who actually do the work. Often, when designing training, it’s necessary to find multiple SMEs to validate that the way one SME does things is really the one way that the organization wants people to behave.

Too many learning projects are started with a single SME who is subject to his or her own biases, which ultimately are projected into the training in inappropriate ways. The best way to minimize this problem is to rely on multiple SMEs to feed in their collective views of what’s important and what’s critical.

Without the SME, there is nothing to train. Still, many organizations don’t have the subject matter expertise in house when the process starts, so they have to decide whether to try to build the expertise in house or to outsource it. Due to the potentially exceptional cost of developing a SME in house, it’s often advisable to acquire the expertise from outside the organization.

What Is Expected of the SME?

The SME or group of SMEs is responsible for articulating how the skills and behaviors are built, including any required sub-skills or competencies. The SME works backward from the goal to explain how to get there. To use an analogy, it’s the business owner who sets the destination at Las Vegas, and it’s the SME who says how to get there. He or she specifies the form of travel (air or car) and, often, the roads to use to travel from where you are to Las Vegas.

It’s key that SMEs are able to articulate the edge of their knowledge so that the information codified into a training solution is accurate. Similarly, they should be open to working with other SMEs – even ones they don’t agree with – so that the end solution can address the needs of every student.

What Is not Expected of the SME?

SMEs are not expected to know everything. The answer “I don’t know” is encouraged – especially when it’s followed by “but I’ll find out.” Conversely, it’s not expected that an SME will say “just figure it out” or “that’s too obvious to explain.” SMEs necessarily have the curse of knowledge. That is, they don’t have the capacity to really understand what it’s like for someone to operate who doesn’t have the knowledge they have.

SMEs aren’t expected to do all the writing or production of the end learning product. There are folks in the process who will facilitate that process. They extract their tacit knowledge so that it can be codified. They’ll have to develop rules of thumb that less experienced practitioners – students – can leverage until they’re able to develop their own intuition.

Where’s the Role Going?

SMEs are becoming more and more important the longer we live in an information-overload economy, where there are too many areas of specialty for anyone to master. It might have been possible in the 1960s for a single person to be the absolute expert in the new field of computing, but as the field has advanced, no one can know everything about computers in the same way that no doctor can know everything about human health.

SMEs are an indispensable part of the learning development process who should expect that they’ll have a seat at the table for the foreseeable future.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The SMEs live both inside and outside the training development world. Their success in the “real world” has made them the experts they are and is why they’re valuable to the training development process. However, this role comes with some unique constraints. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly:

  • Good: SMEs are sought after for their knowledge, and sharing this knowledge generally makes SMEs feel good about themselves.
  • Good: The right SME can deliver a firm foundation for the development of a training program.
  • Bad: SMEs sometimes can become fixated on an area of the industry or process that isn’t that valuable.
  • Bad: SMEs often forget that they don’t communicate using the same terms as people who aren’t experts, and they can continue to move the training development in a way that doesn’t support novices.
  • Ugly: SMEs often find themselves torn between their day-to-day commitments and the desire to help drive the training development forward.