Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are Just Like PowerPoint

Surgeons. Judges. Attorneys. Researchers. They’re smart people. And their presentations can be… what’s the word… dry. So if you’re responsible for training results, how can you transform a Subject Matter Expert (SME) presentation into an engaging learning experience?

The fact is that your work life is going to be much more enjoyable if you embrace this simple fact: SMEs are experts, not trainers (unless they are SMEs in adult education and training). So, what are you to do when you depend on an SME to educate your learners? When it comes to effective training, you can delegate content creation and delivery to an SME, but never, ever abdicate the entire learning intervention.

Delegation, not Abdication
International development organizations, non-profits and major corporations alike depend on SMEs to bring their expertise to audiences of learners. An SME should be viewed as a training resource – much the same as PowerPoint is a training resource – but an SME is not the entire learning experience (just as PowerPoint alone does not make a complete learning experience).

My favorite training design model consists of the following elements:
1. Anchor (a brief activity to connect the learner to the topic at hand)
2. Content (the actual subject matter to be learned)
3. Application (activities allowing a learner to practice new knowledge, skills or behaviors)
4. Future Use (activities or resources a learner can take to transfer the learning to their job)

Effective training generally works when Step # 2 (content) is delegated to an SME. Too often, frustration sets in when an entire training program is abdicated to an SME, and all he or she produces is content.

Building Around the SME
SMEs are generally too busy to be bothered with mastering adult learning theory and strategies. Therefore, if you’re ultimately responsible for an engaging learning experience, then embrace the experience and expertise an SME can provide, and recognize that the material your SME provides is the content, and content is just one of four necessary steps.

If your SME is providing live training, then make sure that you’re able to provide an adequate briefing or anchor for the learners before the SME takes the stage. You can also immediately follow-up on the SME’s presentation with application activities and future use job aids based upon your SME’s content.

Sometimes an SME is contracted to produce training materials. As long as you haven’t abdicated the responsibility for the entire design of the training curriculum to an SME, you can take materials produced by an SME and build anchor, application and future use activities around an SME’s content-heavy materials.

It may be tempting to simply contract with an SME and walk away from the hard work that goes in to training program design. But engaging learning interventions require a proficiency in more than just the subject at hand; integration of adult learning and instructional design principles is essential.

Want an example of what this could look like? Come back on Friday for a fictionalized case example of building around SME materials.

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