While SMEs hold countless different responsibilities in the world in general, in our training world SMEs play specific roles that merit our attention and focus. For our purposes, we divide them into five categories: technical, hybrid, instructional, functional, and sentinel SMEs. Each of these classifications has specific characteristics and contributes to our work in unique ways. Not all SMEs are created equal, and this is a real advantage for trainers.
Technical SMEsFirst in our categories of SMEs is the technical SME. This group is primarily focused on technical content and isn’t overly involved or concerned about other aspects of the instructional design process such as implementation. Technical SMEs are brought into the process to provide content knowledge and to make sure that every detail related to content is correct. These SMEs often work in groups, and the larger the scale of a project, the more of these experts you can expect to be involved.
Examples of technical SMEs include OEM (original equipment manufacturer) representatives, engineers, scientists, lawyers, medical professionals, skilled trades workers, and many others. This group is expected to have documented proficiency in the content area, and these SMEs usually have certifications, degrees, or other professional standing.
This unique category of SME embodies someone who is both a content expert and an implementation expert. These SMEs are expected to provide support both in the content of a course or program and in the best ways to deliver it. This, of course, assumes substantial documented expertise in both areas.
In most but not all cases, this combination is a very good thing, but there are exceptions that you need to be aware of as you consider a SME’s qualifications. For example, a college professor who has never taught or designed a course for online implementation may not be a good choice for both content and implementation expertise if you are designing online college courses. In fact, a SME’s combination of depth in content and lack of applicable implementation knowledge can be a source of friction when designing implementation, since his or her views will likely not resonate with the views of the more experienced design team members relating to online course design. Be careful in these situations.
The roles of facilitator, mentor, coach, and teacher are all included in the instructional subject matter expert category. While this group may possess some degree of subject matter expertise, its primary role is to enhance the instructional aspects of the training during implementation. It is likely that someone who does not participate in the design, development, or management of the training will teach a technical course. Having this group’s input about the best way to implement the content is often valuable.
Examples of instructional SMEs include a teacher who has considerable online course experience but doesn’t possess any relevant content knowledge. There are also a number of talented skilled trades instructors who can assist with classroom and shop-level implementation course development. Both of these experts offer considerable value to the course design process.
Within your design team, you often have experts in areas who are not content or implementation related, but are nonetheless vital to your project. This might include programmers, software designers, photographers, artists, writers, and a wealth of other non-content expertise. In most cases, we don’t consider these valuable assets as SMEs, but they are in every way subject matter experts in their professions. To treat them in the same manner as our content experts will almost always work to the design team’s advantage.
Sentinel SMEsThe final classification of SMEs is reserved for those in our world who manage and monitor many of our projects, yet may possess less relevant or dated content knowledge. These sentinel SMEs are most often members of governing boards, grant committees, or highranking organizational leaders, or they may sit on oversight or technical committees. While they may not be contributing directly to the content, they may feel compelled to comment on various aspects of the technical side of a content area.
Sentinel SMEs may sit in judgment of programs and courses and expect their knowledge to influence content decisions. Their input may be a distraction to the process if they insist on making their influence felt on decisions that the design team and other SMEs are in a better position to make. In other situations, technical and hybrid SMEs may sit as sentinels on projects to which they can serve as a real plus in moving positive momentum and direction from the perspective of both a technical expert and a sentinel leader for the project.
As you identify the different types of SMEs in your work, don’t get trapped into thinking that one individual can only play one SME role in your work. There are the rare and talented individuals who are perfectly capable of contributing in multiple was. Just be sure you have identified their roles in each situation to best use their abilities.
Note: This article is excerpted from ASTD Handbook for Training & Development, 2nd Edition (ATD Press, 2014). Comprehensive. Insightful. Definitive. The second edition ASTD Handbook is the most valuable resource you can own as a training and development professional. Written by 96 of the best and brightest thinkers in the field, its 55 chapters cover everything you need to know about the profession today.