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ATD Blog

What Is a Subject Matter Expert (SME) for L&D?

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

If you’ve spent enough time in the learning and development (L&D) sphere, you’ve likely come across the acronym SME. Add it to the long list of L&D jargon. SME stands for subject matter expert and is used to refer to an expert or thought leader in their field.

While many of us probably like to think we’re experts, those select few who truly earn the title of subject matter expert are incredibly valuable in the L&D world.

Ready to become an expert on subject matter experts? Start here.

What Is an SME?

As the name suggests, an SME is someone with a high level of knowledge and expertise on a certain subject.

SMEs can be anyone with a degree in a particular field, from a new hire in accounting to an expert witness in a high-profile court case. You probably have several subject matter experts on your team—perhaps without even realizing it!

SMEs are particularly valuable in workplaces that require highly specialized knowledge. For example, if you need to create a learning module on developing workplace cultures but don’t know the first thing about the subject matter, you can turn to an SME. This applies to almost any course where you are unfamiliar with the subject matter, which is why SMEs are in demand in L&D.

Basically, anytime you need specialized, technical knowledge, an SME is likely to be involved.


What Is the Significance of SMEs for L&D?

SMEs are essential to creating accurate, engaging L&D content. Given the breadth of topics L&D professionals must cover, it is almost impossible to be an expert in everything.

As Training Industry explains, “Since we don’t have the ability to read minds ... we must settle for subject matter experts (SMEs), who can help us understand what employees need to learn to reach the desired outcomes.”

Picture this scenario. You have to create three learning modules: one on compliance training in the construction industry, one on upskilling a remote team, and one on mental health and well-being. While you might have a basic understanding of each of these topics, it is unlikely that you are an expert in all three. So, you turn to SMEs in each area and lean on their knowledge to ensure the content you create is accurate, in-depth, and engaging.

Therefore, SMEs are the lifeblood of L&D teams. They hold the expertise that we need to disseminate to our learners. Without SMEs, many L&D teams would struggle to fulfill specialized content requests.


How to Identify and Engage SMEs on Your Team

As mentioned, you probably have SMEs on your team, sometimes without even knowing it. Identifying and engaging these team members with hidden talents can be the key to taking your L&D team to the next level.

There are many ways to identify SMEs on your team. It can often be as simple as striking up a conversation, finding the subjects people are most passionate about, and letting them talk. From there, it’s a matter of translating your SME’s knowledge into high-quality learning content.

Here’s a few tips for effectively engaging with your SMEs:

  • Set goals and offer your SME a clear structure by establishing expectations and deadlines and tracking progress.
  • Communicate the key learning objectives of your training program.
  • Develop an ongoing relationship with your SME.
  • Open a clear line of communication and ask questions.
  • Avoid L&D jargon and acronyms your SME may be unfamiliar with.
  • Offer your SME the right level of support. Remember, they might be a subject matter expert, but that doesn’t mean they’re an expert at creating learning content.
  • Give examples of high-quality L&D modules to shape their expectations and understanding of what you’re looking for.
  • Value your SME’s time and appreciate their expertise.

Next time you need to create a piece of learning content, remember the manifold benefits of engaging an SME.

About the Author

Dom Murray is content coordinator for GO1, an established leader in online learning and education.

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