One of the great debates within the learning professional circle right now is whether subject-matters experts (SMEs) can be used as effective trainers. SMEs, which can come from anywhere — including within your very-own organization — are just people who happen to have an area of special expertise, whether that's sales, using the computer system, or making coffee. In my experience, I've found that most trainers tend to believe that since these so-called “SME”s lack formal teaching skills of a trainer, they can't do the job as effectively.
Recently I've been working on a strategy to build a lean learning organization that can support a high-growth business without growing my team too rapidly. So utilizing SMEs is likely to be an important part of our plan, as we can simply tap the knowledge base we already have within the company and learn from each other without adding staff (which management loves). However, there are still some risks involved.
For one, it's simply a fact that not all SMEs are suited to teach others. Also, it's possible that by asking SMEs to focus on training their peers, you may impose on their regular, day-to-day duties, and actually hurt their value to the company. But these risks can be overcome with the right attitude, the right process, and a willingness to teach them training. (If you can, download Vic Passion's article, “They're Experts, But Can They Be Trainers?” in the February issue of T+D Magazine — although it's behind a paywall.)
According to Passion, there are three main steps that learning leaders can use to prepare SMEs for training:
Evaluate knowledge, skills, and attitudes about training
Most important in my mind is the evaluation of the SME’s attitude toward training. Ask the SME how important they believe training is to an organization and whether they believe training plays a role in how well an organization performs. Responses to these two questions will tell you a lot about the SME’s attitude toward training. SMEs must have a positive, enthusiastic attitude about training in order to be successful.
Select SME trainers properly
The best way to select an SME to mold into a trainer is to have them teach a short topic to you as an audition. Whenever I've interviewed trainers, I always ask them to teach me something. Ask the SME to teach you something, about anything. Evaluate how they explain a subject so that you can understand it. Note how often they ask questions or check to see whether you understand them. Check how excited they get as they teach you something. Make the session short — 20 minutes or so — and get a feel for how the SME builds a relationship with you during the short session. You are a trainer. You can tell whether they have a knack for it. Don't worry so much about whether they know everything you know about training. Look for potential.
Train SMEs to be trainers
Just as we learned how to be trainers, so can they, but they do need to learn the skills. If you want your SME to be successful, enable them to be successful by teaching them the training skills you know so well. Passion suggests teaching the SME about adult learning theories and presentation skills. Teach the SME how to ask questions rather than answer every question, and how to conduct an activity so learners can practice a task instead of just explaining how a task should be done. The training does not need to be extensive. A smart SME can learn these skills. You just need to decide which skills to focus on.
SMEs can be effect trainers. If we learning professionals select and train them properly, SMEs can be an enormously effective resource for training people. The question is not whether a subject matter expert can be an effective trainer — it's whether we've prepared SMEs to be effective trainers. So by all means, leverage experts in your organization to teach more.
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Bill Cushard, Director of Training and Development at Allonhill, is a learning leader with more than 12 years of experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.