Friday, January 30, 2015

The 'Perfect' Subject Matter Expert (SME) - Myth or Reality?

The term, 'Subject Matter Experts' or SMEs typically brings to our mind the faces of 'content experts' that have contributed their expertise to our instructional design projects. Along with these faces, some of us are reminded of the challenges and frustrations that we have felt along the way. But is there a Perfect SME or is it an illusion? Is the perfect SME a mythical character from far, far away or can we find one on this planet? Is it a myth or a reality

Well, the 'perfect SME' is an illusion or an enigma just like a 'perfect instructional designer' or a 'perfect human being'. However, you can learn to partner with SMEs and make the relationship work for you and the project. But before you venture out and attempt to partner with SMEs, it is important to understand three things. These may not be true in all projects but in most cases, these are valid:

1) Most SMEs are typically not deeply interested in developing the training material/manual/course or whatever else is that you are interested in developing because - it's not their job. They are not instructional designers. > Their interest and engagement varies. 

2) Most SMEs are low on time and always in demand. They would prefer to use their time and expertise in their area of chosen work. In most cases, they did not choose to work with you on the instructional design project; someone asked them to do it. > Their availability is always a challenge.

3) Some SMEs may not be 'experts' but were asked to contribute to the project. And there are many good reasons why. They might have been 'experts' in the area a few years ago and since then have moved into other areas of work or they were doing the job the longest or they were available. > Their expertise may not be at the level you expected.

Once you appreciate and truly understand these realities, it is easier to partner with SMEs. Remember the word 'partner' and not 'work with or manage'. Working on instructional design projects with other contributors including project managers, programmers, graphic artists and content SMEs is all about cooperation, communication and partnership. Infact, each of us is an SME in our area of work. If we look at a project with this lens, no one is an outsider and no contribution is less or more. Everyone is required and their expertise is valuable.

The bottom line is that no one is perfect. In a project, we all have to work with each other and learn to capitalize on the given competencies and overcome any limitations. Good work happens when we focus on both the task and the relationship. 


  1. I used to think and feel about Subject Matter Experts (SME) the way you describe. My perspective began to shift when I started participating in EdCamps a couple years ago.

    While there were SMEs at EdCamp the deepest most meaningful learning experiences I had came from others like me who didn't know much or just enough to be dangerous.

    A watershed event came shortly after I began reading Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess. His perspective revolves around engagement in general. in particular he asks "What are you willing to do to engage?" and "Would you pay to attend your class?" Working with SMEs is about tapping their knowledge and skill to aid learners. The thing is, as you describe, what they can contribute is constrained by availability, interest, and expertise.

    One thing you don't mention is The Curse of Knowledge. Often-times SMEs lose touch with what doing looks and feels like to someone new or less skilled than they are. This technique I learned at an EdCamp, design thinking, helps me address The Curse and the SME constraints.

    I enlist the aid of people new to the task or knowledge area. I ask them to identify someone who they think could make a good SME. Then we have at it. I haven't come across a time when someone didn't want to solve a problem. Often we start with a worse-case story; who doesn't like to listen to tale of woe someone from their community experienced?

    Anyway, give design thinking a try. A good resource to get started is, a virtual Crash Course In Design Thinking.

    1. Thanks for reading the post and for your comment Urbie. Just like you, I am constantly refining my knowledge and understanding of collaborating with SMEs.

      I must get my hands on Teach Like A Pirate. The title is enticing. Besides, the word 'engage' means so much more than what we think we know. I am sure I will learn more.

      I agree with you on the curse of knowledge. I most enjoy working with SMEs who are hands-on folks and practitioners of the trade or the job. But we always don't get to choose who our SMEs might be. Besides, most SMEs like to talk about topics they enjoy and not necessarily the topics you must cover in the learning event.
      I have grown to become extremely patient. Another skill besides communication and collaboration that transfers very well to other aspects of business and life :)

      I will definitely explore the concept of design thinking as applied to collaboration with SMEs via the virtual crash course. On first look, it is very promising! Thanks for sharing and for engaging with me!