4 Steps to High-Powered SME Relationships

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sometimes, it seems like "SME" is a four-letter word.

Love 'em or hate 'em, though, you need your subject-matter experts. Whether they're just content providers or also lead learning opportunities, working with SMEs can be challenging. Your priorities aren't theirs. Missed deadlines, inadequate facilitation skills, and “interesting” ideas about what effective learning looks like are common. Even if some are dedicated and know what they're doing, the result is inconsistency for learners. Sound familiar?

Learning opportunities are at their best when a solid, productive partnership exists between learning professionals and subject-matter experts. Learning expertise plus content expertise, focused on what is best for learners, is a powerful combination.

The key that opens everything up is having a quality relationship. A great relationship built on trust and mutual respect allows you and your SMEs to focus less time and effort battling each other and more on meeting learner needs. And it all starts with you.


Whether your SMEs are volunteers or “voluntold,” you can establish or enhance your relationships with them by taking a few initial steps. These four steps–using them together, not sequentially–get you started along the road to better relationships and, ultimately, stronger partnerships with your SMEs.


1. Assume good intentions. Chances are nobody ever set out to do a bad job for you. When something happens, it's typically because SMEs often don’t know what they don’t know.
2. Beware of making any other assumptions. Because they know the content, do you assume your SMEs know how to lead learning opportunities? Or that because an SME is a great face-to-face facilitator she’ll do a great job online? Perhaps you assume SMEs will talk in terms learners will understand, or that they know how to engage learners. Making assumptions like these can be akin to “managing by hope,” and may be at the root of any challenges you’re experiencing.
3. Find out what concerns them. Have you ever made time to just talk with your SMEs, one-on-one, to learn what they’re concerned about in working with you? After learning about enhancing relationships in my ASTD Essentials course, "Essentials of Coaching SMEs to Facilitate Learning," a participant once shared she did just that. It was like a wall came down, she reported, and was clearly the start of a stronger partnership that would benefit learners.
4. Discover what motivates them. You can’t give anyone motivation; it has to come from within. Every SME is motivated by something; perhaps giving back, or exposure to the audience. Maybe the motivation is a paycheck, or the expectations of others. Talk about motivation with your SMEs. Whatever those motivations are, you can use them to both inspire your SMEs and enhance their performance.

Like any worthwhile relationship, the relationship you have with your SMEs takes work to nurture and develop. Yet it’s the foundation of all the work you’ll do together. How? In my next post, learn four more things to consider, as you build your SME relationships, that will impact the work you do together.

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About the Author

Kathi Edwards is an independent consultant, writer, and facilitator specializing in creating more effective learning environments and strategies. She supports clients in developing learning strategies, designing learning opportunities, and ensuring subject-matter experts (SMEs) have the knowledge and skills they need to facilitate learning. Ultimately, everything she does is focused on those who matter most: the learners. Kathi’s unique expertise in transforming the effectiveness of subject-matter experts who lead learning opportunities is frequently sought by national and international organizations in a variety of fields. In demand as an engaging speaker and facilitator in both corporate and not-for-profit settings, she is a frequent content leader on topics related to learning, learning strategy, and working with and coaching subject-matter experts. In addition to facilitating ATD’s Training Certificate Program, she developed and facilitates, several times per year, the popular three-part webinar series “Essentials of Coaching SMEs to Facilitate Learning,” part of ATD's ongoing “Essentials of...” webinar series. Kathi speaks and writes extensively on learning practice and strategies. She is co-editor and a chapter author for the book “Core Competencies in Association Professional Development, 2nd edition” (ASAE, 2011), and contributed 22 of the ideas in the book “199 Ideas for Enhancing Learning Experiences” (ASAE, 2011). She also served as executive editor of “CAE Study Guide 2015” (ASAE), a comprehensive study resource for those seeking the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential. As part of her ongoing commitment to effective learning regardless of the setting, Kathi is a qualified lead assessor for the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) Certificate Accreditation Program. The program is based on ASTM E2659-09, Standard Practice for Certificate Programs, which is an American National Standard. Prior to launching her consulting business, Kathi spent 25 years working in a variety of capacities for five distinctly different trade and professional associations. For a majority of that time she was responsible for development, implementation, and evaluation of professional development programs.

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