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Why Are SMEs So Important to Training?

The subject matter expert (SME) is someone with more qualified expertise in performing a specific job, task, or skill than anyone else in your organization. Why are SMEs so important to training and performance? 

First, in today’s environment of using less dollars to conduct top-notch training and get the biggest return-on-investment (ROI), using SMEs to train makes a lot of economic sense. Most organizations already employ SMEs to carryout their everyday business. Why not tap your internal smarts to benefit the organization as a whole? 

Second, who better to conduct training than those individuals with the most expertise in a certain field? It can take training generalists weeks, if not months, to get up-to-speed sufficiently on a technical process or other job skill to prepare a curriculum. An SME, on the other hand, already knows this information, to use a old fashioned phrase, “like the back of his hand.” 

In addition, because the SME has performed the job often and well in a variety of situations, he or she can provide real-world examples of how to perform the trained skill or knowledge on the job. An SME’s experience provides learners with concrete and visual images, and this increases the credibility and effectiveness of the training. 

Last, many organizations can neither afford a large training staff nor have the luxury of time to take employees off the job to conduct training. On-the-job training (OJT) is now the norm. To keep your organization up and running, why not investigate the benefits of using SMEs—who are already performing vital business functions for your organization— to mentor OJT programs that train other employees? 

Using SMEs to Train

You can use SMEs in the transfer of training or learning for the following: 

  • skills acquisition
  • knowledge/information acquisition
  • problem-solving or attitude. 

Skills Acquisition

Skills acquisition refers to the transfer of skills and processes that you can easily observe, replicate, and document. In this role, an SME performs what is most commonly referred to as “technical and skills training.” This training involves skills that are manipulative, calculable, or analytical (for example, learning computer spreadsheet software, running a piece of machinery in a plant, or completing a form). A trainer providing technical or skills training provides cognitive or conceptual information only to the extent required for participants to learn these skills. 


Knowledge/Information Acquisition

Knowledge and information acquisition refers to the transfer of material that helps individuals perform their jobs, without necessarily being an observable skill. Here, the SME trainer is the possessor of knowledge and information about specific work. The SME shares this information with learners to enable them to perform better (for example, company history, mission and values, and HR policies). 

Problem-Solving or Attitude

The transfer of problem-solving or attitude skills refers to the transfer of new methods of dealing with work and management issues to help individuals or groups perform their jobs better. In this capacity, an SME acts as a facilitator, whose main focus is on the transfer of learning through group process (for example, improving group decision making skills, solving a team conflict, or determining future work projects). Direct skill acquisition is not typically an objective of this type of learning. 

Selecting an SME 

If you find yourself in the position of having many SMEs to choose from to conduct your training, you may need a little help getting started. Use the following checklist to help during the SME selection process. 
  • Have you completed the needs assessment for your training program?
  • Does the SME exhibit excellent job performance?
  • Does the SME have a thorough and comprehensive knowledge of the subject?
  • Does the SME possess a confident and inviting presence? Is he or she comfortable in front of groups and working one-on-one with other employees?
  • Is the SME able to establish good rapport with other individuals? Does he or she interact well with others?
  • Is the SME knowledgeable about adult learning principles? Is he or she aware of adult learning characteristics?
  • Is the SME enthusiastic about his or her job? Does he or she honestly desire to help others acquire knowledge?

For more advice on selecting an SME, check out the ATD Links article "Selecting and Evaluating SMEs" by Chuck Hodell. 

Note: This article is excerpted from TD at WorkTeaching SMEs to Train” (January 2016). This issue addresses the skills and traits trainers should look for in the SMEs they wish to collaborate with—including less tangible assets such as enthusiasm—trainer competencies to consider if the SME will be conducting the training session, and training delivery methods and their advantages and disadvantages.


About the Author
Cat Sharpe Russo is a former editor, writer, and content manager for ATD. 
About the Author
Patty Gaul is a writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).
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