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SME to Trainer: Building Instructor Skills in Government Employees

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

With more than 100,000 part-time “weekend warriors” spread across every state and US territory, developing and maintaining proficiency in often very technical career fields presents a huge challenge for the United States Air National Guard (ANG). Training at the local unit level is central to maintaining the ANG’s readiness. That training is often conducted by subject matter experts (SMEs) rather than dedicated trainers.

However, relying on SMEs creates challenges, since they are technical experts, not trained instructors. SMEs often do not understand the science of how learning occurs, the processes of planning the flow of training content, or how to deliver an effective presentation. Yes, they have the knowledge to do the job quickly, but they often struggle to explain their knowledge in simple terms a learner can understand. As experts, they no longer consciously think about all the details that go into doing the job. They may skip key pieces of knowledge the newcomer needs, or speed through task steps, leaving the trainee confused and lost. In the end, they can become frustrated when the employee being trained is not “picking it up” fast enough.

To address the challenges of having SMEs lead training, ANG is helping them build instructional skills. Giving SMEs basic instructional skills allows them to deliver the knowledge and skills underlying their technical expertise in a way that connects with the newcomer. It helps them break tasks down into bite-size chunks. Training in communication and basic presentation skills enables them to explain training content in simple, digestible terms. Skill in giving feedback and coaching allows them to lead a trainee through the natural progression of becoming a skilled performer.

What does instructor training for a SME look like? It starts with imparting an understanding of how people learn. What are working and long-term memory? How does attention and motivation affect learning? How does instructing adults differ from teaching children? In all of these topics, an emphasis is placed on the practical implications for training. For instance, discussing the limited capacity of working memory leads to focusing on the need to chunk content and eliminate extraneous material that might distract learners. This approach of moving from theory into practice gives SMEs practical techniques they can use to improve their training.


Once SMEs understand how people learn, their instructional training turns to the development of training programs. How is a task broken down into more discrete knowledge and skills? How is the hierarchy of knowledge and skills used to determine the flow of training? What are the components of an effective training session? How does a trainer develop a useful plan of instruction? Giving SMEs these skills allows them to consider their expertise from a training perspective. It helps them systematically break the tasks down, create a logical flow, and then build a plan they can follow.


The final piece of instructional training for SMEs focuses on delivering training. Here, SMEs learn basic presentation skills. They learn how to use questions and other active learning strategies to encourage learning. They also learn to manage trainee behavior in one-on-one, small-group, and classroom settings. As they learn these skills, they are given opportunities to practice them and receive feedback on their strengths and areas for improvement.

With the addition of basic instructional skills to their toolkit, SMEs become a valuable link in the process of developing newcomers. They can confidently plan and deliver training that meets the needs of both the individual learner and the organization. For the Air National Guard, investing in building SMEs’ instructional skills ensures its airmen are better prepared to meet the unique demands of serving and protecting our nation.

To learn more, join me at the ATD 2024 International Conference & EXPO for the session SME to Trainer: Building Instructor Skills in Frontline Government Employees.

About the Author

John Erdman is a training specialist with the Air National Guard Readiness Center’s TEC University in Knoxville, Tennessee. In this role he develops and conducts instructor and leadership training to support the nation’s Air National Guard units. John's 35+ years of training and education experience also includes a variety of positions in corporate, higher education and not for profit settings. He holds undergraduate degrees in management and government and a Master of Education degree.

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Great article, John! I'll look forward to attending your session in New Orleans.
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