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SMEs Operate on Cruise Control

Subject matter experts (SMEs) have something called “unconscious competence.” They are so good at what they do that they don’t know how or why they do it. Many of the smartest things they do are done without a thought.

But why would we ask someone who can’t describe how they perform a task to train someone else? We shouldn’t. Also, because of their extreme expertise, it’s hard for them to put themselves in the shoes of the new learner. So they don’t know all the steps, and they can’t relate to training participants. Clearly, this isn’t a recipe for success.

To be sure, we need SMEs. They provide the content for our learning experiences, credibility with our audience, and answers to the toughest questions. But in the classroom? Let a professional drive.

If you do ask a SME to train for you, partner him or her with an experienced facilitator. Here are some tips for co-facilitating.


Before the session:

  • Decide who does what.
  • Plan a shared message.
  • Learn each other’s sections for backup.
  • Discuss situations when your partner may signal to you to take over.

During the session

  • Explain why you are co-facilitating.
  • Have the co-facilitator sit in view of participants.
  • Don’t correct each other.
  • Ask for the other’s input.

Responsibilities of SMEs

  • Identify learner characteristics.
  • Provide content resources for training materials.
  • Describe realistic business situations to bring the content to life.
  • Provide real-life examples, non-examples and mistakes.
  • Meet all review and project timelines.
  • Review and approve content accuracy.
  • Sustain project deliverables post go-live.
  • Advocate for training.

Bottom line: SMEs provide input to and validate accuracy of training materials. SMEs do not validate instructional design.
This article is excerpted from The Learning & Development Book.(ASTD Press, 2011).  Written for the experienced professional who lacks time and is juggling many responsibilities, but who yearns to be more effective with their professional development programs, The L&D Book provides simple ideas and concepts which illustrate best practices for improving learning and development teaching skills. Whether you are a learning and development professional, a manager, a corporate team leader, a human resources professional, or are simply interested in becoming more productive and efficient, The L&D Book offers clear, concise advice based on real-world experience.

About the Author
About the Author
Mary Stewart loves to talk about change. A former Big Five change management consultant, Mary now considers herself a writer and communicator. She has found her groove helping Emerson Human Capital reach out to clients and the consulting industry. She helps craft messages to clients, maintains EHC's branding and image, and supports the communication line of business. Mary loves her work, but her true passions are raising her three children, finding and feeding two elusive cats, and spending time with her big, extended family in Oak Park, Illinois.
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