Summer 2016
Issue Map
CTDO Magazine

Debate: Who’s the Better Teacher?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The argument: SMEs, not trainers, are the better choice for leading training courses.

It's constantly being discussed: Do subject matter experts make better teachers or should we leave the job to trainers? SMEs have the hands-on experience and direct knowledge that they can impart on learners. But trainers know the best strategies to make learning stick. Who will do the better job?


Ed Betof
President, Betof Associates
Senior Fellow in Human Capital, The Conference Board

The effective use of subject matter experts and leaders who serve as teachers and trainers can be a major building block for any organization's success. Doing so actively engages your organization's best and brightest talent in the learning and development of others. Paraphrasing Jim Collins, when subject matter experts and leaders master the art of teaching, they've laid a powerful foundation for an enduring great company.

The following are the most frequently identified benefits when SMEs and leaders teach:

  • helps drive business results
  • increases the professional and leadership development of learners
  • bolsters the professional and leadership development of those who teach
  • strengthens professional and organizational knowledge and skills
  • enriches organizational culture and strengthens communications
  • promotes positive business and organizational change
  • stimulates engagement.

Respected SMEs and experienced leaders can be highly effective teachers and trainers for four primary reasons: their content knowledge, their depth of experience, the positive organizational credibility and influence they have developed, and their dedication and willingness to help others. It has been my experience that, if the inclination is there, most SMEs and leaders can become effective, and many can become very effective teachers, trainers, and facilitators. Given their own openness to learning and their enthusiasm, most SMEs are open to "sharpening their teaching saw."
In this way they can benefit easily from the expertise, training, and coaching of talent development professionals. This type of collaboration helps SMEs and leaders learn and apply a variety of interactive or active training methods and to apply group process facilitation approaches.

There are age-old historical precedents for SMEs and leaders teaching and training others. These date back to the earliest of human societies and have continued ever since. Tribal elders taught values and culture around campfires. They also taught hunting, food gathering, and other survival skills to their young.

Beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing today, experts or artisans have taught and supervised apprentices and interns. Farming families have taught values such as shared responsibilities and planting and harvesting skills to their offspring for centuries. Medical interns, residents, and experienced, licensed physicians learn regularly from more experienced and peer SMEs. This is also true in other health professions. The medical mantra of "See one, do one, teach one" has served these professions very well for many years.

The military, law enforcement, engineering, scientific disciplines, accounting, regulatory, risk management, supply chain, and manufacturing are other examples of the dozens of professions where SMEs perform or have a major role in teaching and job-specific training.

At the executive and leader level, current research demonstrates that the vast majority of the "best companies for leaders" effectively use a leaders-as-teachers approach as an important part of their portfolio of leadership development methods. Who better to teach and model the values, strategy, key goals, and change imperatives than the organization's leaders who know more about these topics than anyone else? Additionally, wisdom and lessons from experience often are taught through storytelling, preparation sessions, individual and team feedback, situation analyses, and meeting debriefs.

Consider as well the opportunities that leaders have to teach informally or what I like to call "teaching in the moment." Both planned and spontaneous teachable moments occur daily. In teaching and learning organizations, developmentally oriented SMEs and leaders do not miss these opportunities.

While making the case for why SMEs and leaders can and should be highly effective teacher-trainers, there are extremely important roles for talent development professionals. Experienced talent development professionals may very well be SMEs themselves on a range of topics. Whether they are teaching train-the-trainer programs for SMEs or coaching leaders and executives one-to-one on how they can present or facilitate in powerfully interactive ways, the role of talent development professionals is essential.


Rachel Hutchinson
Senior Manager, Global Training and Learning, Hilti

Terry Copley
Senior Learning Consultant, Hilti

As organizations become leaner, many times we overlook a critical function—that of the professional trainer. In an effort to be lean, some organizations assign training to subject matter experts, assuming that the content knowledge and credibility they bring outweighs their lack of knowledge of adult learning and applying training to a real-world environment.

As more of our learners are now Millennials, we are seeing a strong resistance to the "talking head" at the front of the room, making adaptability and professional facilitation skills much more valuable. In addition, in today's world of faster, ever-increasing inventory of products and services offered by organizations, it is not realistic to teach about everything, but rather to educate on how to discover what you need to know.


Specifically, critical skills needed in today's learning environment include:

  • Adapting to the changing norms, such as Millennials' preference for Googling over memorization, group activities instead of individual stars, and self-discovery over information given.
  • Curating, selecting, and incorporating a variety of content, media, and resources to ensure adaptability to a wide variety of learning styles and motivations.
  • Managing disruptions (internal or external to the participants), such as noticing when participants are not progressing and finding a new path.

Consider the following situation and determine which trainer you would select.
New hires joining your company, a manufacturer headquartered in the United States and doing business worldwide. New hires are typically university graduates with less than two years of work experience. You expect them to start in a general role as a salesperson or field technician and work their way up based on education and aptitude.

Here are your potential trainers:

Mr. A grew up in your company, starting out as a field technician more than 25 years ago. He knows everything about your product line and the competitors' lines during the past two decades. He is also very well-networked within the sales and engineering sides of the business and is the go-to expert for many people. Sometimes you have to listen for 30 minutes to the "war stories" to get to the information you need, but you will always get what you need.

Mr. B joined your company three years ago with a degree in organizational development and six years of experience as a trainer in another industry. He has since launched several training initiatives to transfer some of your company's information into bite-sized e-learning modules and regularly receives requests to organize team workshops to work through specific challenges hitting goals. He is well-connected within limited areas of the company, especially through your online discussion groups.

Given these details, which trainer is most likely to:

  • provide the critical and relevant content to your new hires without getting lost in their own past experiences?
  • be able to develop a targeted curriculum that could be repeated and modified depending on audience profiles?
  • be aware of and adapt to the needs of the majority of your new hires?

While the knowledge that Mr. A has should not be overlooked, Mr. B is more likely to provide an experience to the new hires that transfers critical information and ensures that your investment in people development pays off. Mr. A should be an expert that is available, and you should find a way to capture his knowledge. But Mr. B will create more value in the learning environment for you and for the new hires.
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

Ed Betof, EdD, is a leader, teacher, coach, mentor, and author. As president of Betof Associates, he does C-level executive and leadership team coaching. He also serves as executive coach for the Center for Creative Leadership and teaches for the Institute for Management Studies. In 2007, Ed retired as worldwide vice president of talent management and CLO at Becton, Dickinson and Company. In addition, he served for eight years as the program director for the Conference Board’s Talent and Organization Development Executive Council, and was a founding senior fellow and an academic director for the doctoral program designed to prepare chief learning officers at the University of Pennsylvania. Ed is the author or co-author of five books, including Leaders as Teachers: Unlock the Teaching Potential of Your Company’s Best and Brightest, Leaders as Teachers Action Guide, and Just Promoted!: A Twelve-Month Roadmap for Success in Your New Leadership Role. He is a frequent speaker on leadership and career topics and a former ATD Board member.

About the Author

Rachel Hutchinson is senior manager of global training and learning at Hilti. She leads a team of global training consultants and project managers for Hilti AG, an international company based in Liechtenstein with 23,000+ employees in 120 countries. She works closely with stakeholders at all levels to define optimal ways to affect results across the organization.

About the Author

Terry Copley is a senior learning consultant for Hilti, headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is a member of the global training and learning team responsible for consulting with and coaching various leadership groups across the globe on how to successfully develop their diverse team members and also our external customers. Copley has more than 20 years of experience in a variety of roles related to personnel development, sales and leadership competency development, and e-learning.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.