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Five Considerations for Selecting SMEs

Monday, May 16, 2016
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Subject matter experts can make or break a training initiative. Here's how to pick the right people for the job.

The process of selecting subject matter experts (SMEs) for a training project often is left to chance, or at the very least not given the level of attention paid to other elements of the design process. It is sometimes easier to "take what you can get" than to do what it takes to make informed decisions about your SMEs. However, it's important to identify the best partner for your training project.

I have found that the five most important factors to consider when selecting SMEs are

-relevance of experience
-depth of experiencetimeliness of experience
-location of experience
-training experience.
-Relevance of experience

Whether your content is simple and generalized or technical and complex, relevance is something you must consider. Even the most intelligent and experienced SMEs may not have quite the experience you need for a project.

For example, imagine you are providing training for a new software package that your organization has purchased. There is pressure to tap the in-house IT department to deliver the training because the IT team supports the technology needs of the organization anyway, and because using in-house resources is much cheaper. They don't really support software now, but they can learn it quickly enough. Sound familiar?

This is where relevance of experience becomes the voice of reason in this process. Maybe your in-house folks can master the basics of the software, but they serve as hardware experts. It's important to separate hardware expertise from software expertise. Many times decision makers fall into this trap, either because they don't understand this difference or because they're operating in a budgetary climate that demands thrift.

Depth of experience
Although relevance may be the most important factor to many designers in picking a SME, it's also important to drill down to the real knowledge a SME possesses of the training content. Depth of experience only can be obtained by direct and usually lengthy exposure to the content. I've seen this point of distinction many times in my work with SMEs, and it usually becomes important as you move from simple to complex objectives in your content continuum.

In the previous software example, considering depth of experience would help you decide between a SME who has experience in the category of software that the package falls into, and one who actually has experience in your software package. Software certainly is software in a general sense, but this software is new to the organization and has a unique feature that will not be familiar to those with no experience in the package.

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Choosing a SME because he has general software knowledge may mean that you are paying for this person to learn the software himself on your dollar.

Timeliness of experience
When choosing SMEs, timeliness has to be considered. I doubt you can find an area of content that hasn't changed in the past 20 years, much less in the past 10 years or even the past 10 months. Content usually changes much more quickly than non-SMEs realize.

Timeliness means the difference between "old school" course content—which many of us are familiar with—and up-to-date course content. SMEs are sometimes chosen for projects because they have been around an organization for years and are liked and respected by everyone. Unfortunately, you may find that your choice is out of touch with the content in ways that negatively affect your project.

Do your homework and make sure that your SMEs have remained current in their area of expertise. "Current" in many cases means having documented experience within the past six to 12 months.

This facet of SME experience often is ignored by designers. However, this is a key consideration when selecting a SME. "Location" can be defined several ways for our purposes. The most common definitions are in terms of geography such as different countries, regions, states, or cities; but location also can refer to different climates, legal systems, languages, and so forth.

In my work with national and international apprenticeship programs, I have found that where someone works and was educated has a profound influence on their usability as a SME. This could include issues with regional jargon, work practices, building codes, and health and safety requirements.

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Sometimes location differences are more subtle, such as differences in organizational culture. The Los Angeles office probably does things differently than the Baltimore office. This may or may not have an impact on your project, but I have seen ignorance of this factor negatively influence training programs.

When considering location of experience, you should decide whether you feel comfortable using one SME for training audiences with locational variances, or whether you should partner with a group of SMEs who can represent the various forms of diversity in your audience.

Training experience
When designing a training program, having a SME with teaching experience can be a double-edged sword.

On one hand, teaching experience can be a great advantage in effectively translating content into courseware. On the other hand, you may find that your SME, while possessing teaching experience, does not teach courses the way you design them.

I have seen competent SMEs who were less-than-competent instructors, and still felt compelled to add their two cents to the course design process. That often becomes an issue when courses are technology driven. The transition from classroom to online delivery is seldom seamless, and it is asking a lot to expect a SME to be up to speed on this method of course delivery.

When selecting a SME, be sure to dig a little deeper into the actual value of the individual's teaching experience, and consider whether it matches your expectations of her participation.

You always can ward off unwanted advice from your SME by explaining upfront that she is participating to support the process of gathering and managing the content, and not to advise on the course design or implementation aspects of the project.

As you consider potential SMEs, use these five elements to inform your decision. Your particular situation and unique project needs will determine which of these takes precedence in your review of SME candidates, but in all cases, make sure that your process of choosing SMEs is given the same amount of consideration and effort as any other aspect of your work.

About the Author

Chuck Hodell is the author of the bestselling ATD book ISD From the Ground Up and has been involved in the worlds of training and education for more than 30 years. He has written extensively on instructional design and training-related topics for ATD, including several Infolines. He has enjoyed stints as a musician, police officer, telephone company repair technician, trainer, teacher, and academic administrator. Like many talent development professionals, his first exposure to training and instructional design was as a subject matter expert. He currently serves as associated director of the graduate program in instructional systems development at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He is also the senior program director for instructional design at the Transportation Learning Center and academic adviser to the International Masonry Institute. Hodell has an undergraduate degree from Antioch University and an MA and PhD from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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