Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) have become a very valued commodity today. With so much going on and so many niches becoming widely known and adopted as the norm, it’s important to have somebody who really knows their stuff.
SMEs have been part of training for a long time – in the old days of classroom interventions, they featured as guest speakers. Recently they have reached even wider audiences with the boom in e-learning and its capacity for incorporating videos and animated presentations.
It’s also a common practice to involve an SME in course design in order to make sure the information is properly sifted and correct. However, if the organization wants them to ‘fly solo’ either as content designers or session facilitators they will need a special framework and some of the tools of the trade.
Put in place an SME development strategy
The first thing to formulate is the exact role that the SME will play. Then, it’s time to define all the tasks they will have to perform functioning as an L&D specialist. With those in mind, a thorough assessment of the knowledge and skills already under the SME’s belt is in order because this will render a good glimpse of what the gaps and learning opportunities are.
When all information is gathered, it’s the right moment to design opportunities for growth. Since we are not talking about a new hire who is required by the job description to learn and adjust but about a seasoned expert who is making a shift, it’s important that they are actively involved in every step of the process. The most crucial aspect is to get buy-in for the development path.
Invest in training SMEs
As with every participant in a learning program, the need to know from the beginning “what’s in it for me” is important to your experts when they set on the journey to teach others in the organization. Some of the necessary skills may be acquired in-house but odds are there is a greater need (and wish) for personal and professional development.
So, it’s a good idea to see what is available on the market and what the individual employees in the program would find useful. Think in terms of public speaking, presentation skills, or even some more in-depth courses that award certifications that are recognized business-wide.
SMEs are generally learning enthusiasts so, in order to keep them engaged, organizations need to provide them opportunities for continuous learning.
Take into account the ‘expert’ bane – too much information
Probably the number one skill that SMEs will have to develop when they step into the role of a learning designer or facilitator is to only pick and present the information that is truly relevant to the audience.
If you have a passion for anything from gardening to Medieval Scotland or Game of Thrones you know how difficult it is to talk about it to a newbie. Trying to share everything you have tested, read, or seen on the subject (not to mention what you have come up with on your own upon analysis) is always destined to fail.
Well, SMEs are that way about their field so they need to learn how to peel all the ‘extra’ layers and give away enough for the participants to understand the concepts and be interested to find out more in time.
Provide the right tools
Even if they are seasoned in their field, SMEs may be novices to L&D so they will need everything from the starter kits to the newer apps and technologies that the organization employs in learning. Make sure they can turn to comprehensive instructor guides and other course-specific tools available.
It’s also crucial that they have unrestricted access to technical guidance and support on all the software and services they are supposed to use when teaching. Tech mishaps and fails can make even the most knowledgeable expert look like they don’t know what they’re doing and that is, ultimately, detrimental to all involved.
Participants tend to remember the events of a learning occurrence and it’s best that these have to do with the new information not the connecting cables or buttons on the screen.
Coaching – a powerful tool for building collaboration
When SMEs agree to become part of the L&D crowd, it’s a matter of interdepartmental partnership. Learning specialists can benefit from all the shared expertise on an important subject while their counterparts get to improve their knowledge, skills, and attitudes about adult learning.
Some general areas that might require coaching for the SMEs are:
- Understanding and applying the principles and practices of adult learning
- Generating activities that support learning both during and after a module
- Building engaging visuals
- Moving from presentation to facilitation
- Keeping the amount and depth of content appropriate for the audience.
Effective coaching will always build on the SME’s strength while remaining constantly future-focused and action-oriented.
SMEs can become very valuable members of the L&D crew, both as advisors and instructors. Their vast personal experience will make their inputs relevant and engaging. However, maximum impact is predicated on the fact they are equipped with the knowledge and tools necessary for success.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.