I was recently asked to help find a subject matter expert for a major technical training programme. My response was that the subject was covered in excellent detail in at least five major textbooks written by world-class experts (the real SMEs). Of course, the company in question now insist on using their own SME, who is third rate, and is now regurgitating stuff from the world-class authors. Led to me to reflect…..
SMEs rarely the best
SMEs are often unnecessary, as they’re rarely the ‘best’, usually just the closest or best in that organisation. What most organisations need in an injection of expertise from the outside, beyond what they already know.
SMEs can be egomaniacs
SMEs often come with huge egos – this often gets in the way of good learning. They want to impress rather than contribute.
SMEs are poor on delivery
They’ll pontificate, read your stuff and rubbish its accuracy, but they often fail to deliver good written content and often miss their deadlines – especially when they have a fulltime job being an expert.
SMEs don’t get learning
University lecturers, especially the esteemed Professors, often fail to understand the basic principles of learning, providing too much detail, resulting in cognitive overload. They assume they’re experts in learning and they’re not.
SMEs don’t get design
They want to control the design process as they regard themselves as experts on interactivity, media mix and video production etc.
Good SMEs are recent learners
Try using some recent learners as SMEs, they’re cheaper, better understand the learning problems (they’ve just been through them) that surround the content, have less of an ego, are cheaper and deliver because they have less responsibilities in the organisation. Carol Twig found this in her huge research project in HE – post-grads were often better teachers than the full-time staff.
Good SME is often a book
Real SMEs have usually crystallised their knowledge in books, articles etc. The best SME is therefore often a book, web content etc
If you have to use them - make it contractual!
Limit their sphere of activity by egtting them to sign a strict schedule, along with agreements on delivery, format for comments, what they have to do and what they don’t do (learning and interactive design).
Obviously there are some situations where the only source of expertise resides within the organisation, when you're training on an in-house systm, for example, or providing product knowledge. Otherwise I agree with your sentiments.
Hmmmm...I broadly agree with the sentiment, but again many of the SMEs used in large organisations have a tream of tacit knowledge that your trying to access. Many of them probably wouldn't write a book/article as who would read about it. I think the point holds true when you use SMEs and they are unaware of the constraints within which they should operate. they are the holders of the knowledge, not the individuals who can define how it is relayed. I think as learning professionals we also have to accept some level of responsibility around educating SMEs in the boundaries that they are expected to work within i.e. by all means give us the knowledge, but don't think your writing the programme/teaching the individuals/know everything about learning because....hey...anyone can be a trainer!!
I'd agree that working with SME's can be one of the most challenging parts of any project, and occasionally they will try and take over the learning and design, usually aspects about which they have no expertise.
My own experience supports the comments made by Clive and Ron that you are often looking for expertise that is specific to your organisation and not available elsewhere.
I think Ron's point that we have a responsibility around educating them is spot on. Often the problem is less about the SME and more the lack of ability to properly engage that SME on the part of the learning professional.
My friend and colleague John Howe makes what I think is a useful distinction between subject-matter expert and exemplar.
The latter is someone currently performing the relevant job or tasks, someone regarded as producing consistent, superior results.
All too often, the subject-matter expert is someone who used to do the job, or else someone who's done it the longest (or loudest) without necessarily producting consistent or superior results.
That said, as an instructional designer, you may have to dance with the partner picked by the client who brung ya. Barry Sampson is correct that you may have to help the subject-matter expert understand the expertise that you bring to the problem at hand. It's also helpful, in many cases, if you (a) work systematically (because many experts are systematic and will eventually recognize a system in action) and (b) avoid ISD/training/learning jargon when simple English or clear business language will do.
We had a discussion on SMEs the other day. We ended up listing out similar points.
To add to what you have mentioned,
SMEs never abide by timelines. They are a self-important lot! But then aren't we all...
I was wondering if there exist agencies which provide SME hiring services.
Look forward to hearing from you.
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