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Subject Matter Experts vs. Instructional Designers: Which Is Better?


Wed Sep 04 2019

Subject Matter Experts vs. Instructional Designers: Which Is Better?

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“Those who can’t do, teach.” This cliché isn’t universal. Scores of people have turned successful athletic careers into teaching careers, because over the course of many years they have learned and developed the skills to become great trainers. Simply doing something doesn’t mean you can teach it. Doing and teaching are two separate concepts.

Just because you possess a specific skill set and are recognized for achieving results few others attain does not mean you are well-suited to teach that skill—executing a specific skill set is not the same as possessing the ability to teach others to do it well.


Indeed, doing and teaching require separate skills. For example, a Wimbledon tennis champion does not require communication skills to win the tournament, but a professional tennis coach certainly needs communication skills to teach a player how to hit backhand slices.

Similarly, some people believe that all teaching and training is the same. This is not true. Let’s outline the two major players involved in instructional systems design.

  • Subject matter experts (SMEs) are the authorities in a particular field that possess in-depth knowledge as it relates to their company’s organizational goals.

  • Instructional designers (IDs) are experienced training professionals who function as instructors and guides for their employees.

Common beliefs associated with instructional systems design and training tend to be incorrect. Let’s debunk a few myths.

Myth #1: All training is the same. It means teaching someone how to do something.

Training is diverse and dynamic, with many facets. A professional trainer can analyze an audience, determine foundational knowledge, recognize learning styles, and cater content to include all these factors.


While there are general categories of learning styles, everyone learns differently. Professional trainers are responsible for ascertaining trainee strengths and weaknesses and modifying their presentation to appeal to the trainee’s learning style.

Myth #2: Trainers should be experts in the subjects they are teaching.

Many business owners believe the only people qualified to conduct training are their own SMEs; they assume the person most qualified in the subject matter is best qualified to teach it. There is no strict correlation between subject skills and training, however, and we need to separate skill level and training ability, as training does not merely include the associated skills. Most importantly, training involves the teacher-learner transaction.

A SME is only familiar with one aspect of the teacher-learner transaction: the content. This is because a SME’s knowledge is only valuable for a specific phase during the instructional design process. A SME’s skills aren’t applicable to any other aspect of this important practice, which impedes teaching.

It is a professional trainer’s responsibility to analyze each learning audience, design effective learning plans, create the necessary tools for the learning plan, execute the training and, finally, evaluate training efficacy.


The SME’s talents are limited in scope while a professional trainer’s abilities are wide-ranging and vital to the learning process. Because professional trainers understand both the instructional design process and adult education, they know which questions help determine where to start the training process, how to sequence training, and how to ensure students don’t feel overwhelmed with the information.

Myth #3: Professional trainers only disseminate information.

Professional trainers can set clear learning objectives, limit content to what is necessary to accomplish learning objectives, and make training learner-centric. Because they are familiar with adult education theories, they can assess what the learner already knows and build on that knowledge sequentially. Meanwhile, SMEs are familiar with the content but not necessarily the training process nor the learner; therefore, they can only disseminate content knowledge.

Professional trainers understand the training life cycle and can work with SMEs to learn specific content that may exist outside the realm of their experience. Professional trainers are also analyzing the audience, determining foundational knowledge, recognizing learner styles, and catering content to include all these factors. These trainers then synthesize the instructional process, adult education theories, and content knowledge to sequence training and cater their delivery styles to ensure the Learner masters the learning objectives without becoming overwhelmed.

Bottom line: to create the best product, SMEs and professional trainers should work together and utilize their individual strengths. Both roles are invaluable for different reasons but add to a common learning goal.

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