There are both benefits and risks in using subject matter experts (SMEs) in training, and there are steps organizations can take to help SMEs be successful.
“The real benefit is subject matter experts are experts in their field. They live it. They work with it every single day,” says Greg Owen-Boger, vice president of Turpin Communication. “Bringing their expertise into the training room is invaluable.”
SMEs also can impart their knowledge on other employees, which ensures that it stays with the employer when SMEs retire, Owen-Boger says.
Since SMEs generally are not experts in talent development or training, employers should be proactive about “setting SMEs up for success,” Owen-Boger says. That starts with instructional design. For example, if each slide in a presentation has a “well-honed” title, SMEs can glance at the titles and use them as a reference during training.
SMEs should be coached on facilitation and delivery skills. It’s even more “critical” that they be coached “on the actual content that they will be delivering,” Owen-Boger explains. If they are not coached, employers run the risk that training will not be effective or efficient, he says.
For instance, an SME who has not been coached might look at the speaker’s notes in a presentation and assume that he should read them like a script, says Dale Ludwig, president and founder of Turpin Communication. Or, the SME might conclude that since he or she is the expert, it is OK to ignore the speaker’s notes altogether.
Owen-Boger and Ludwig also recommend video-recording SMEs, because that can help build self-awareness and refine delivery skills.
Finally, SMEs should be taught to ask questions and to “let learners discover things on their own,” Owen-Boger says. He uses the analogy of a high school math teacher to help explain the concept to SMEs. “She wanted you to show her your work. Allow learners to show you their work.”
Owen-Boger and Ludwig are coauthors of The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined and an upcoming book on SMEs.