Subject-matter experts (SMEs) are individuals with a deep understanding of a process, a technology or a part of the business. They are an indispensable asset for companies, as they can find creative solutions to problems, look at something from different angles, and provide support for new hires.
When you know something very well, you can easily understand the bigger picture and see what others don’t. Innovation and creativity are closely linked to expertise in a field.
When SMEs are involved in the learning process, they can offer technical acumen and specialized training to employees who are not too tech-savvy and need to brush up on their hard skills.
Think about it for a moment: the experienced SME coaching the eager to learn newbies, passing on knowledge, helping others grow. It looks like a match made in heaven! Or is it?
Technical and business experts don’t always possess the necessary skills for training or coaching, it’s not a package deal. Some SMEs are natural-born trainers, others are not. That is why coaching them to understand the subtleties of learning is an essential step for successful training sessions.
There are two types of SMEs
A (wo)man with a plan…Or a dozen of them.
Some SMEs might be planners, who thrive with careful organization and preparation. Pros and cons come with this profile.
You can rest assured that these SMEs will take their role very seriously, will prepare, show on time, deliver the content, and be engaged.
Nonetheless, they might feel that they do not have enough time to prepare, they will want a clear and predictable structure, and they might be inflexible and strict during delivery.
Everything is inspiration…
But some perspiration never hurt anyone.
Other SMEs might be natural improvisers and thrive from connection with learners. In this case, strengths and weaknesses need to be taken into consideration as well.
These SMEs will cope well with the unpredictable, may even embrace change, and show a positive attitude in their new role. But…
…There’s always a “but”, isn’t it? Improvisers will tend to delay preparation until the last minute, during the delivery they can lose focus, digress and give confusing presentations.
Coaching subject-matter experts to facilitate learning
Pros and cons need to be addressed during coaching, as both profiles have the potential to become good trainers.
A few recommendations might come in handy for planners.
They should be encouraged to prepare well in advance if this is what makes them feel in control, but keep in mind that perfectionism is a problem, not a solution. Also, flexibility during training sessions is essential, as people have different learning styles and they absorb content at their own pace.
Obsessing over the perfect slide is not very useful if learners feel that they are not encouraged to participate, share their ideas, their doubts, and their feedback. Nuanced discussions are also a key motivator during training sessions, as they make learners engaged and motivated.
Improvisers might benefit from some recommendations as well.
Structure is important in any presentation, as it helps learners organize the content, make correlations with previous knowledge, and retain more information. Trust the plan, focus discussions on goals, and make presentations as clear as possible.
Also, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the time, as wandering discussions may prevent you from delivering the content. There is always a balance between improvising and structure, try to put things on an even keel.
Both planners and improvisers should be reminded that learning is a process that leads to the expected results. In sports, they say that top performers do not necessarily make good coaches. Sometimes it’s true for SMEs as well.
Remind them of the lost art of patience and everybody will win. Learners will feel understood and supported, while SMEs will feel less frustrated and more motivated in their new role.
Last but not least: enjoy and make the most of it! Passing on knowledge is one of the joys of any professional career.
Veronica is a multilingual trainer of trainers. She has years of experience working with adult learners, both in Higher Education and in the business sector.