Working with SMEs

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) will be some of the smartest and most capable of people we have the fortune of working with. Sometimes those SMEs will be experienced in working with people on developing training programs and are used to distilling their expertise into bite-sized chunks for learning purposes. Other times, SMEs will want to make sure that everyone learns everything about a topic.

In today’s podcast, I’ll briefly talk about what an SME actually is and how we can partner with them to make sure everyone’s time is used well, including some sample questions that may be helpful in getting us more quickly to the right information.

Introduction

Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder and CEO of a company called Endurance Learning. Today’s podcast is going to focus on working with Subject Matter Experts. So we’ll talk about what the typical role of a Subject Matter Expert or SME or SME is in a training project and how might you craft some questions that help you get the information you need to be sure your time with a Subject Matter Expert is used efficiently.

Before we get to any of that, I do need to mention that today’s podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, which is an online tool that you can use for about 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing live, instructor-led training. You tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people are going to attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what your learning objectives are. Basically, you just throw a few ingredients in – it’s almost like using an Instant Pot. Soapbox will generate a training plan for you with clusters of training activities designed to help you accomplish your learning objectives. If you want more information, go to www.soapboxify.com.

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

All right. Let’s get back to the topic at hand and that is Subject Matter Experts. What are they and what’s their role in a training project? So in the world of training, you’ll hear the term “Subject Matter Expert” a lot, or maybe you’ll hear the acronym SME, or some people like to smush all the letters together and pronounce it SME. 

Who are these SMEs? The fact is, I’ve never met anyone with the title “Subject Matter Expert” on their business card. I’ve never seen anyone’s resume with the letters SME after their name. And so “Subject Matter Experts” is kind of this term that we use to describe the people who usually know all the things about what we’re about to develop a training on. They have deep expertise in a particular area, and they might be doctors, they might be lawyers, they might be engineers, computer programmers, HR professionals, technical experts in a particular area of science or pharmaceuticals. Maybe they’re department heads. They can be individual contributors who have been doing things very well for a long time. They can take the shape and form of many people who you see across the organization who just know a lot about something specific that we need to train people on. 

since nobody actually has the title "Subject Matter Expert" in their job description, their time is usually more valuable to the company when they're not talking with you or me or anyone else who needs to pick their brains to create training. Typically, these are people who make money for your company by programming software or by spending time with potential customers selling things or by managing whole departments and keeping the lights on in your organization. So using their time efficiently to get what we need from them is really, really important.

And since nobody actually has the title “Subject Matter Expert” in their job description, their time is usually more valuable to the company when they’re not talking with you or me or anyone else who needs to pick their brains to create training. Typically, these are people who make money for your company by programming software or by spending time with potential customers selling things or by managing whole departments and keeping the lights on in your organization. So using their time efficiently to get what we need from them is really, really important.

Three Ways to Work Efficiently with A Subject Matter Expert

Clarify What You Need the Subject Matter Expert To Do

What we really need from SMEs is to be a resource when it comes to making sure the right information goes into the training program.

How can we make sure everyone’s time is used efficiently? The first thing– I have three ideas here- the first idea is to make sure the expectations are clear. You don’t usually need them to create the training program. That’s going to be our job. They may have some slides, they may have done other presentations, and those are great resources. But what we really need from them is to be a resource when it comes to making sure the right information goes into the training program.

Clarify The Learning Objectives of Your Training Program

A second key to using everyone’s time efficiently is to make sure everyone’s aligned on what the learning objectives or the learning outcomes are for the course – what people should be able to do new or differently or better as a result of a training program that probably is much shorter than the time it took these subject matter experts to learn everything they know about a topic. So we need to be pretty specific here. 

Subject Matter Experts often come with a very specific curse. That curse is called the “curse of knowledge.” They’ll know a lot of things. They may feel all those things are important for everyone to know. They’ll also forget that not everyone has the same foundation in their area of expertise. After all, they’ve been doing things for years, so they may forget to share some of the most basic things people need to first learn or do in order to get that foundation. So letting everyone know what the learning objectives are, or perhaps building learning objectives together, can help keep the discussions focused and tight while we’re also preventing the temptation to make sure that the learners learn everything there ever was to know about a subject.

Prepare Questions for the Subject Matter Expert

Perhaps the most important key is making sure you're prepared to come with some questions that can help your SMEs give you the information that you need.

Perhaps the most important key is making sure you’re prepared to come with some questions that can help your SMEs give you the information that you need. Now, some of these questions might be something as simple as, “So let’s talk about learning objectives,” right? So what do people need to know or be able to do new or differently or better as a result of this? 

Another question might be: 

  • What does a typical day look like? 
  • Walk me through the day from start to finish. 
  • What were some of the things you’ve done to learn how to do your job so well? 
  • What do you wish someone else would have told you or taught you when you started? 
  • What do you worry about or what keeps you up at night when you think about performing this task? 
  • If we only have time to teach someone the two or three most important things about this role, what will those two or three things be? 

Maybe these questions you can use with your Subject Matter Experts. Maybe they’re not quite right, but at least they spark some thoughts on how you could modify them for your own purposes. Maybe they’re not even close to what you need. The key is to make sure that you have some questions ready to make sure that everyone’s time is going to be used efficiently. 

Working with SMES: The Summary

All right. So that is just a quick rundown on Subject Matter Experts and how we might want to work with them. Subject Matter Experts are really valuable to the organization and to our training efforts. Because they’re so valuable to the organization, it is important that we use their time well. So establishing learning outcomes or learning objectives, coming prepared with questions in advance can assist in making sure you’re using everyone’s time well. 

Subject Matter Experts is Element #14 in Brian Washburn's Periodic Table of Elements of Amazing Learning Experiences

And the last thing I’ll say about this is if you’d like more information about working with Subject Matter Experts, you can always visit our website at www.51elementsoflearning.com and click on element number 14, and that is going to specifically take you to more information on Subject Matter Experts. And that includes a checklist to help you qualify people to be Subject Matter Experts who can work with you on your training projects. And there’s a bunch more information there too.

That’s it for today. Thanks for listening. If you know someone who might find today’s topic on working with Subject Matter Experts to be important, go ahead and pass this link along. If you want to make sure to be notified of a new podcast when it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe at Apple or Spotify, wherever you listen to your podcasts. Even better would be if you were able to give us a review of the podcast. It’ll just take you a minute, it would mean a lot to me. If you’re interested in learning more about a broad range of learning and development beyond subject matter experts, you can pick up a copy of my book: What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements For Impactful Training at http://www.amazon.com. Of course, if you ever need some help putting together a training program, you can go ahead and shoot me a note at brian@endurancelearning.com, and that’s all I have to say. So until next time, happy training everyone.

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