Your Guide to Working with a Subject Matter Expert (SME)

If you’re in the process of developing new employee training, it may be useful to look at the skills and knowledge of a subject-matter expert, or an SME.

Your Guide to Working with a Subject Matter Expert (SME)First things, first. What does a subject-matter expert do?

Much as the name implies, an SME is an expert in a particular area, so regarding employee training this might be a person you hire to ensure all of the information and content you’re presenting to employees is completely accurate. SMEs are particularly helpful when you’re creating training and development materials for specialized and high-level employees, as well as for employees who work in a technical role. They’re helpful when the people creating the training, such as human resources or L&D officers, may  not be fully familiar with the job role of the people who will be utilizing the training.

Along with turning to an SME in technical capacities, many people also opt to work with these professionals when they want to ensure their e-Learning is the best it can be regarding instructional design.

Finally, SMEs can be called in to develop training materials for instructors who will eventually be leading other employees through training.

Sometimes SMEs will not only advise in areas including content development, instructional design, assessments and technical accuracy, but they may also be called in to do the actual writing for an e-Learning module or course.

How a subject matter expert is defined as being an “expert” largely depends on your industry and your unique needs. For example, this person may have a strong academic background, or on the other hand, may be a long-time veteran of the industry for which you’re creating training content.

Hiring an SME

When it comes to hiring an SME, it’s important you find the right person, or better yet a few people. If you have two subject matter experts working on one project, you’re likely to get a better final product. You’ll have the advantage of both of their experiences and knowledge bases, and your e-Learning won’t be dictated only by the opinions of one person.

Before you hire someone to fill this role, make sure you get to know a little about them and their work style. These people may be used to working completely independently, and they may not want to be expected to come to your office for daily brainstorming sessions. On the other hand, you may find an SME who enjoys working in a highly collaborative environment and who wants a lot of direction, input and feedback. Every SME is unique, and it’s ultimately about finding the person who works for your business and your goals.

SME Challenges

While SMEs can be a tremendous resource that helps you make the best possible e-Learning, it’s not a situation that’s without challenges.

Some of the frequent challenges faced by enterprises include:

SMEs can be reluctant to face criticism or embrace change. They are, after all, hired by your company as an expert, so it’s easy to see how this could be a challenge. Also, once an SME has created a course or e-Learning content they may be reluctant to make changes based on feedback. These are understandable feelings, and the key is to head off these challenges before they actually begin. The more clear you can be about goals and expectations with your SME, the better the likely outcome. Also, don’t tell your SME he or she has total control over the project when you plan to come in and make big changes. Be honest from the beginning about the role you plan to play in the process.

They’re not part of your business. It’s easy for SMEs to feel like outsiders to your business, and also to not be aware of the inner workings of your organization. Make efforts to integrate them into your business, even if it’s only for a short time while they’re working on a project. They’ll get a better feel for your businesses’ overall identity, and they’ll also feel more connected and engaged as they’re building your course.

Effectively Working with an SME

Effectively Working with an SMEWorking with an SME to build training and development can be a unique and sometimes challenging prospect. Often these people are hired as freelance or contract workers, and they may have a clear idea of how they think a project should go, and that may not always be the same way you envision things.

It’s valuable to take the time to learn how to best work with an SME, for the most successful outcome.

  • Be clear about objectives and goals from the start. While an SME may be an expert in the particular topic at hand, that person is not likely also an expert in your unique business. You need to be the driving force behind the project, even though it may seem as if your SME is directing it. Create the working tone you want from the very beginning of your time with an SME, and let that person know what role you expect them to play.
  • If you can produce examples of how you’d like your e-Learning project to look, by all means do so. SMEs may be great in their particular niche, but they’re just like everyone else, and it helps them to have illustrative examples of what you’re looking for, to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • Give your SME the opportunity to get to know your employees. Whether it’s providing them with an overview of employees, or just letting them interact with the people who will be using their training, it’s an important way for your SME to know how to create training that will resonate with the audience.
  • Let your SME know upfront not only what you want in general from a course, but also the length you expect it to be. It can be hard for a subject matter expert to go back and cut content they’ve worked a great deal on, and it can lead to frustrations. To avoid this, set limitations and parameters up front to ensure courses aren’t too lengthy but that your SME doesn’t feel as if she’s wasting her time.

Have you worked with a subject matter expert to develop your corporate training? What were tips you found led to a smoother project?

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