Grooming Your High Performing Employees for the SME Role

In the rapid eLearning and training world, it is becoming more common for people who are experts at their specific job function to be recruited a subject matter expert (SME). For many, this will be their first official involvement in a formal training initiative. So how can you prepare your high-performing employees for a role as a SME?

Grooming a Subject Matter Expert

  1. Set the SME at ease

    Make sure the subject matter expert understands that it is perfectly natural to have lots of questions about the eLearning or training development process. While s/he may be a content expert on the job, translating that expertise into training material is not comfortable for everyone. The person should feel comfortable operating in unfamiliar territory until s/he gets the hang of it.

  2. Get SME buy-in

    Often times if a new subject matter expert is uncomfortable, self-conscience, or otherwise uncertain about performing a SME role, they may raise objections or be difficult to work with. Be sure that the expert understands the role clearly and feels comfortable asking for clarification. Open and honest communication is key. Confirm whether or not the person is excited or happy to take on this new role. If resentment is detected, try to get to the root cause of it or start looking for another SME – just in case.

  3. Get SME manager approval/buy-in

    Make sure that the SME-to-be is authorized by his/her superiors to work on your project. S/he should know that superiors value this contribution and have specifically identified the SME as the best choice for this project.

  4. Involve SME early and often

    Subject matter experts are a crucial part of the project from inception to deployment. Their input will help to shape the course scope, instructional design, and final content. Involve him or her at project scoping, kick-off, source content aggregation/review, storyboard, media production, QA, deployment, and post-deployment analysis.

  5. Clearly define the SME scope

    How many hours, days, and weeks will the expert need to make himself available? In what form is feedback to be communicated (consolidated Word document, email, phone conversations, etc.) Generally the SME should help the instructional designers and writers by directing them in general directions and submitting corrective feedback rather than try to perform the ID role itself. Be sure your new expert  knows the difference between collaborating and directing, rather than actually writing and developing.

  6. Show Up Prepared for the SME Interview

    Make life easy on your subject matter expert. Come prepared with your questions in an itemized and focused list. Coax your SME to give you actionable feedback and do not allow ambiguous or unclear directions to go unchecked. The key is to make the most of everyone’s time. The expert is probably only performing this role as a temporary interruption to his/her normal workday, so show respect for the time given by being prepared.

  7. Teach SME the ID Process

    Take a little time going over basic instructional design principles. Explain the various roles each member of the team plays (instructional designer, writer, graphics, media production, quality control, project manager, expert, etc.) and how/when the SME will most likely interact with each of these roles. Often this is referred to as a Project Governance Document. Be sure to also explain the layout and general “mechanics” of your job aids including storyboards, quality control review/feedback documents, instructional design document (IDD), etc.

  8. Teach the SME to speak your language

    Be sure your expert knows how to formulate feedback in a way that is actionable. They should be told explicitly the difference between vague/ambiguous information vs. actionable. We’ve seen SMEs writing something like, “I don’t like this picture”. That’s not actionable feedback. Also, the expert should be prompted to avoid industry-specific jargon and to clarify or define all acronyms and “industry speak”, especially if training is targeted at new employees who may not be familiar with your company’s specific taxonomy.

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