The Master SME: How to become one? How to work with it?

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If you are in a shipwreck and are stranded in a desolate island with an SME (Subject Matter Expert), what would be your conversation like?

Ask yourselves, “What do we do?”

Both of your concerns become how to get off the island and go back to civilization.

In order of priority you will probably agree to:

• Make a BIG HELP sign on the ground for the search pilots to see
• Prepare a pile of wood and set fire
• Find food and ensure your safety while you wait
• Explore the island

Now you may never find yourself in a shipwreck and in an isolated island (heaven forbids) with the SME, but you are constantly in conversations with an SME, or you might be an SME yourself. If you have this conversation in the office, the dynamics change from having the sense of urgency in an isolated island to the usual behaviors we are all accustomed to, in corporate settings.

“What is important to teach?” You ask.

“Everything,” the SME answers.

“What is important for you to teach?” the SME asks you.

“I need to write the learning objectives first,” you reply.

What is the difference between the office conversation and the conversation in the desolate island?

“What do we do?” versus “What do we need to teach?”

Whatever we do, whether a trainer, instructional designer, eLearning designer or developer, or an SME, we often fail to focus on what truly matters. Instead, we focus on the content, process and the technique of training, design or delivery; we miss the mark in helping learners. Our training and eLearning programs become dull, without focus and fail to impact the learners’ work performance.

What would the Master SME do?

We can learn from the masters in Karate – the ancient martial arts.

Experts say Karate masters focus on the center of balance, speed and power. Whatever their body position is they need to find the balance otherwise they’d fall. Thus, Speed and power are crucial to execute the moves.

In working with the SME or being an SME, we need to organize our content so learners can learn how to find their balance all the time. Balance to me means the key important performance actions the learner must perform at work at all times. Speed and power are the content that helps the learners execute and apply the key important skill and knowledge swiftly and consistently.

In the movie Karate Kid (1984), Miyagi teaches the bullied kid Daniel to defend himself and win the championship by emphasizing the few key moves Daniel can master in a few weeks, against his well trained opponents, the Cobras. Miyagi did not teach Daniel all the techniques. He focused Daniel’s energies and training on the basics that delivered the right blow at the right time.

The Master SME asks these questions:

1. What must the learners learn that are so critical to their success on the job, without which they would fail?

2. What should learners do consistently and swiftly to deliver the critical skills?
In the first questions, ask the SME or yourself using Pareto’s Law – “what is the 20% content that must be learned to deliver 80% of the results?”

In the second question, ask “what are the fatal errors that the learner needs to master and overcome in order to learn and apply the 20%” and “what are the most difficult tasks the learner must learn and execute to master the 20%?”

Where would SMEs find the answers to these questions?

1. SMEs’ personal experience.

2. Customer support logs often show valuable insights. Check chat support logs and audio support recordings.

3. Feedback from operations people who have to deliver and maintain products and services often times see the problems first-hand.

4. Leaders and managers who are watching out on how their products and services impact revenues and costs to the company.

5. Exception reports of accidents.

6. Case files documenting services rendered and provided.

7. Focus groups consisting of customers are good sources.

8. Product or software requirements specifications.

9. Product testing results often show persistent problems.

10. Lost, terminated or cancelled customers are good sources for information.

11. Financial records of returns, damages, and other related costs.

12. Success stories by everyone in your company who touché the products and services.

13. Attendees to past training sessions who have experience with the content.

Today’s business conditions oftentimes make us feel to be in desolate island. There are always urgencies and People need training now and quickly. But we have no total access and could not know all the content so we rely heavily on SMEs. This is also true if we are the SMEs ourselves. To become a Master SME, with excellence in the craft, we need to help them and ourselves by asking the key questions too. `

Ray Jimenez, PhD

“Helping Learners Learn Their Way”

One thought on “The Master SME: How to become one? How to work with it?

  1. Another great source for finding the 20% is social networks. If people are always asking a particular question, it might be part of that 20% (or at least the fundamentals behind the answer might be). Some years ago I did a project where there were few real SMEs as the topic was so new. I posted a question along the lines of "What do you wish you had known when you started down this road?" The responses really helped me create the content for the introduction class.

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