Tips for Getting the Most Out of the SME Relationship

Working with senior managers and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) within your organization on training issues can be a tricky business.

By Andrew Mullaney, Curriculum Developer/Senior Trainer, City University of New York- School of Professional Studies

The rollout of a training program can be a substantial undertaking for training professionals. Program management of an upcoming session may include everything from assembly of materials and documents to the scheduling of sessions to the actual delivery and reporting of results back to the key stakeholders.

For those of us involved in the world of corporate training, one of the most critical factors during preparation is gaining knowledge of the actual content to be taught. This is one of the biggest challenges we face prior to training. Many times, we are not the authority on the subject matter being delivered, yet we are required to know it well enough to be able to teach it to those who do not understand. This means being put in the position of obtaining an understanding of the content from persons more familiar with the topic, usually senior people the organization designates formally as Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). But working with senior managers and experts within your organization on training issues can be a tricky business.

So what’s the best way to work with busy Subject Matter Experts? How do we streamline the working relationship without getting bogged down?

Here are some tips for getting the most out of the relationship with your organization’s SMEs:

  • Understand their time constraints. Most SMEs are volunteered by management to work with instructional designers/trainers, usually in addition to their full-time position. As such, they may have little time and a busy schedule. Ask how much time they can spend on the current topic at the onset of the training project. And try to limit your meetings with your SMEs to an amount of time that works for them.
  • Realize their work history and work style. SMEs are usually senior experts in their field, possessing vast amounts of knowledge. However, you may find they have little or no experience working in collaboration with others. Ease into the relationship at the beginning by stressing who is responsible for exactly what during the project. Also, establish the method that will be used for communication (e-mail, phone, in-person meetings, etc.) and keep the lines of communication open by responding in a timely manner to their inquiries.
  • Keep the focus on the “need-to-know” content. As well-tenured experts, SMEs possess an inordinate amount of knowledge on their subject area—that’s why they are SMEs. The trick is having them focus on the “need to know” rather than the “nice to know” information. You often may be forced to sift through details in order to get to those important points that need to be stressed during training. Adjust their focus away from what they think is important, and reset it on the important points that relate to the training needs decided upon by the original stakeholders.
  • Be careful of too much leeway. As senior staff people with years of experience, SMEs may feel obliged to overstep the existing role and comment on content structure, as well as process improvements that should be focused on. This is only natural for someone who is so close to the program content. Be careful not to let the relationship devolve into one of dictation. In these instances, always try to re-emphasize clearly that their role as SMEs is to offer up knowledge of the content in question; and your role as an instructional designer/trainer is to learn the content, and to scheme it in a way that is easy for participants to learn. Pushback may be needed, but always try to do it diplomatically.

Preparing for the rollout of a training program involves managing a complex project from beginning to end; this includes gaining mastery of the content at hand, as well as managing expectations. And we all know that gaining a strong foothold on the topic to be trained is crucial for success in the training room.

By focusing on the necessary elements of the training topic, and approaching the relationship with our appointed SMEs with consideration, we can effectively keep the door open between trainers and experts. The collaborative experience will result in a successful training for all involved in the process, as well as the organization itself.

Andrew Mullaney is a curriculum developer/senior trainer at the City University of New York- School of Professional Studies.

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