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How to Select Subject Matter Experts


Wed Feb 04 2015

How to Select Subject Matter Experts

This is the first post in a four-part series on working with SMEs in the development of training.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are indispensable to the development of training. They have the knowledge, often mostly in their heads, that is the meat and potatoes of any course. As an instructional designer, your job is to document what SMEs know so that others can learn from their knowledge.


But how do you know who is the best SME for your project? Here are 6 criteria for selecting the SME who can help you the most.

1. They have the "secret sauce" recipe. The best SMEs do something different than everyone else, and their work results in stand-out performance. SMEs are actually in the trenches doing the work you will be training on; they are not just managing the work.

2. They can explain what they do and why. It’s not enough to be a top performer; the best SMEs are also able to walk you through what they do and explain the reasoning behind their methodology.

3. They can break it down. This is the tricky part. Often, when we become expert at something, we naturally develop an unconscious competence that makes it difficult to deconstruct our expertise. The best SMEs are able to break down complicated tasks and complex thinking processes into digestible chunks that a non-expert can understand.

4. They are available. The best SMEs are usually in demand because they excel at what they do. However, you want SMEs who are able to make sufficient time to be interviewed, answer follow up questions, and review your training materials.


5. They are willing. The best SMEs are not threatened by the prospect of sharing what they know—their “secret sauce” recipe. Rather, they are honored to be recognized for their expertise and excited to share their knowledge with their colleagues.

6. They are patient. Being a SME can be tedious. It requires intense thinking to break down actions that feel as natural as breathing and explain their process to someone else. To get an idea of just how tedious this is, think about breaking down in minute detail all the precise steps you follow to back out of the driveway. Are your eyes rolling yet? The best SMEs are patient enough to do just this without outwardly rolling their eyes.So, how many of these exemplary human beings do you need to develop a typical training course? In this case, the old adage of “the more, the merrier” does not apply. I like to keep the number I work with to two to three SMEs per course. I find this is typically a sufficient number to access the in-the-trenches expertise I need. Also, I’ve noticed that when I have more SMEs, it tends to slow down the instructional process. It’s harder to coordinate schedules, get reviews completed, and even reach agreement on key points.

The next post in the series will outline eight steps to interviewing SMEs—without annoying them.

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