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Nuts and Bolts: Working With Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

by Jane Bozarth

March 1, 2011


by Jane Bozarth

March 1, 2011

“Don’t just find an SME — find the right SME. The better choice isn’t always the most experienced worker, but the newer person who remembers what it was like not to know how to do a task, who remembers having to learn and what that entailed.”

Years ago I was charged with developing an online program to replace classroom “training” on the government budget process. The performance issues involved issues that I thought of as being trivial: managers using incorrect vocabulary or making easily corrected errors in the paperwork when dealing with their financial departments.

Experts in the main budget office were very helpful, but they had just been too deep in the trenches for too long. When I asked what the average manager in the average-manager role needed to know, the experts would go into breathtaking detail about the budget process. And I’m sorry to have to say this, but the details were stupefyingly dull. I was trying to develop a quick overview to solve small problems; the existing classroom course on the same content was two days long.

I just wasn’t getting anywhere with the most obvious SMEs, but I happened to know a local-level budget officer from a previous job. She was the one who had worked day-to-day with the kinds of managers who made up the target audience.

When I told her what I needed she said, “Managers really just need to know how to get what they want.” She explained: “If a manager wants a new roof for her office building, or to upgrade a Jeep used in a state park, or to get new uniforms for her officers, she needs to know how to ask for that in a way that will help her get it.” Where the other SMEs had been tactical (do it because it’s the rule), this SME was strategic (if they don’t do it correctly, the paperwork will be misdirected or delayed or rejected, and they won’t achieve their goals). The SME went on: “The language the manager uses matters, the forms she fills out matters, and how requests get routed matters. The training should focus on that, not on all the other details of the policy.”

The light bulb came on. I’d found a more meaningful performance-based outcome, the critical content, and the “What’s in it for me?” factor important for gaining learner attention, all in one fell swoop. The program nearly created itself after that.

So don’t just find an SME — find the right SME. In my experience, organizations will recommend as an SME the person who has been doing a job the longest. That person may just have too close a view, as with my budget experts. Or that person may be carrying years of bad practices, workarounds, and war stories. They often want to share their exceptions to the ordinary: not, “What does the new worker need to know every day?” but, “This weird thing that happened on a Tuesday in 2006 and how I fixed it.” The better choice isn’t always the most experienced worker, but the most recently competent one: that newer person who remembers what it was like not to know how to do a task, who remembers having to learn and what that entailed.

Here are some other tips for working effectively with SMEs, and getting the help you need. Remember, we are all SMEs for someone else: think of a time you have been one. How did it go? What did you learn? What does this look like from the SME’s point of view?

Ask the right questions: Ask a subject matter expert, “Does the learner need to know this?” and the answer will always be “Yes!” Often SMEs don’t understand that we are just trying to get a new performer up to speed, not create another SME. Instead, try: “Can you give me an example of when the learner would use this information?” and, “How often does that happen?” and, “What is the consequence if the learner doesn’t know this/perform this?” Don’t ask “What do you know?” but “What decisions do you have to make?” Turn the conversation to instruction: Cathy Moore ( suggests asking the SME, “What are three common mistakes?”, and then turning those into branching scenarios.

Do your homework: Spend some time researching and reading up on the topic before meeting with the SME. This will gain you respect, increase your credibility, and save the SME time in walking you through basic information. Be prepared with examples of your own: if you don’t want them to suggest a screen-by-screen narrated reading of the procedure, then show them another way to present it.

Remember, the SME already has a job. Don’t expect endless, frequent meetings. Plan for the conversation, and don’t call back three times needing something you forgot to get in the first place. Don’t waste the SME’s time.

Pay attention to the relationship: Begin with the end in mind. The SME has information that you need, so work to cultivate a collegial relationship — this will help you get the information you need. Be respectful. Appeal to their sense of expertise and mastery. And for goodness’ sake, say, “Thank you.”

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Great article. I like to ask: "what decision do they need to make that they can't make now"? Realize SMEs don't always have access to what they know or how they do it; watch, don't just ask. They are your best insight, however, into just *why* this topic is interesting. They're so interested they've spent years becoming experts in it. Tap into that!
Nicely done! I think it helps a great deal to remember that we are all subject matter experts in one area or another - what helps us nail it down for learners new to our area? Reminds me of that unconscious competence, and how that is great for work, but sometimes interferes with helping others learn what we know. There's a good recent podcast dealing with this on - it's free, and the SME segment is about halfway through.
Thank you, Clark and Anon, for your excellent additional suggestions.
I am a Retail SME and I have more than 40 years of retail experience in buying, planning, supply chain, and replenishment. That includes extensive knowledge of automated replenishment techniques, demand and supply forecasting and supply chain methodologies. My 12 years consulting experience also includes business process optimization, organizational change management. software development, project/program management, IT/business strategy and governance, CRM, strategic planning and software evaluation and installation.
I have worked with a dozen retailers as well as IBM Global Services, JDA Software, and UST-Global and have gained consistent praise while consulting here in Bentonville with the world’s largest retailer for the last four years.
By your viewpoint, at 62 with 40 plus years of experience, I am the old SME you deride as too old school, too set in my ways, not nimble enough or up to date with what’s new. I disagree with your article’s suggestion to that effect.
I lead our mobility practice; I am a member of our Thought Leadership team. Clients, colleagues, and “associates from past lives” consistently turn to me for what is the latest, what are the newest industry trends, and what’s happening in multi-channel retailing.
On my way home from work each day I ask myself what are the top five things I learned today – and I rarely stop with less than 10 learnings on that list. I hunger for new truths and constantly co-invent new ways to see and do things. I am a creator and innovator and am never happy with the status quo.
Twenty SME youngsters would not have one tenth the vigor, hunger for the latest, and desire to learn, teach and grow that I have and demonstrate each and every day.
And that response pretty much confirms everything Jane said. The important thing is not necessarily to find the SME with the most qualifications or years of experience, but the one who can best inform efforts at helping the NON-SME learn.
I could not stop to chuckle at the 62 years old, sel-proclaimed best SME! Hopefully I won't find one in my path... btw I am 66!
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