No matter what field, there are always individuals who stand out as subject matter experts (SMEs). They’re the ones we go to with questions on particular topics where they have significant knowledge. SMES are also sought after by learning development teams to contribute their expertise to learning content.
When it comes to choosing SMEs to inform and validate your learning courseware, what qualities should you look for? Beyond being an authority in their field, what makes for a good subject matter expert? Here’s what we think makes for a stand-out SME.
Your chosen SME should be willing to roll up his or her sleeves and work with the learning development team on content development. Rather than passively offering advice or input from the sidelines, ideally, the SME will participate in the entire process and infuse it with their knowledge. Not only will the courseware be enriched by this active approach, the team will benefit from the guidance and involvement provided.
Most SMEs have likely already developed a large body of content that can be repurposed for learning, but some are not as willing to change it as others. They understandably have pride of authorship, but may not want to bend when it comes to adapting their content to your learning needs.
A good quality for an SME therefore, is flexibility. How willing are they to allow changes to their material? Are they able to match their “voice” with that of your organization so that the material resonates with the learners? Can they work within your timeframes and development processes? Someone who won’t consider changing their style might not be a good fit.
Hand in hand with flexibility is the SME’s ability to align the learning content with the strategic goals and culture of the organization. The most effective material is going to be directly relevant to the learners’ jobs while incorporating the organizational learning culture. If you’re engaging an SME, you don’t want a “one size fits all” approach, rather you should be looking for someone who takes the time to understand what makes your organization, and its learners, unique.
Many fields of expertise, especially in technology, advance rapidly. Concepts that were relevant even a year ago might not be current today. A good subject matter expert is also a constant learner in order to stay up to date with developments in their field. Look for an SME with an active body of work, such as blog posts, journal articles, and presentations to peers. There’s certainly nothing wrong with asking for examples of recent writing or other evidence that the SME is keeping up with the state of their chosen area of expertise.
This combination of qualities should make it easier to select and work with your SMEs to produce the quality content that your learners need to be successful. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and do a thorough evaluation before selecting your subject matter expert. You’ll be glad you did, and it will make for a better outcome all around.