Blog Post

Help! My SME Just Went Rogue… Now What?!

Published: Thursday, December 28, 2017

If you’ve ever worked with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in the training room, the title of this article is probably a familiar one.

SMEs can and do go rogue.

It’s not unusual for a Talent Development professional to lament the fact that the SMEs they work with don’t follow the facilitation guide or that they alter (or even cut) well-planned activities. If this has happened to you, don’t pull your hair out. Help is on its way.

When we work directly with SMEs, we hear comments such as:

  • “The order of these slides doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
  • “I’m not going to do this activity. I don’t understand it, and it’s a waste of time.”
  • “The process that’s laid out isn’t how it is in the real world.”
  • “I’m sure this made sense to someone at some point, but I have no idea what this slide is supposed to be about. I guess I’ll just make something up.”

Often these comments are in response to a design that they simply don’t understand or an organizational structure that doesn’t fit the way they think about the subject.


Is Learning Happening?

The question that you, as the Talent Development professional, must ask is this: “Is learning happening?” If it is happening, consider allowing the SME to continue with what he or she is doing. There are a lot of battles to fight, this doesn’t have to be one of them.

If the learning isn’t happening, or isn’t happening as efficiently as it could, then it’s time to respectfully step in and exercise your expertise in adult learning. There are a few approaches you could take.

  1. Redesign the learning so that it better matches the way your SME thinks. This will go a long way to building trust between the two of you.
  2. Explain why the learning has been designed in the way that it has, and coach the SME to work with it. Their lack of seeing the bigger picture may be causing their frustration. Make sure they understand what they’re supposed to accomplish at every step of the way and how the building blocks work to accomplish the overall goal.
  3. The third option is a combination of the previous two.

Regardless of the approach, empathize with the SME. Delivering material that you didn’t create is tricky business. Expressing empathy for their situation can go a long way in maintaining a positive working relationship.
My colleague, Dale Ludwig, and I will be writing a lot about SMEs in the future. ATD Press also just published "Effective SMEs: A Trainer's Guide for Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning," which you can  find in the ATD bookstore. 

About the Author

Greg Owen-Boger is the vice president of Turpin Communication. He was schooled in management and the performing arts and joined Turpin in 1995 as a workshop videographer. He quickly worked his way up, and now serves as account manager, trainer, and coach for a broad range of Turpin’s clients. He is a frequent blogger and popular conference speaker. He is also co-author of The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined. Greg served as the 2015 president of the Chicagoland Chapter of the Association for Talent Development, and is among many thought leaders who contributed to Master Presenter: Lessons From the World’s Top Experts on Becoming a More Influential Speaker.

1 Comment
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I've always found success in working with the SME to understand why they feel the way they do about certain content. As you mention, a lack of business acumen or big picture awareness can be common causes. Rather than continuing to allow the friction, it's always been my experience that addressing the SME's concerns goes a long way in building a trusting relationship.
Well said, Daniel. Empathy goes a long way!
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