My colleague John Howe makes a useful distinction between subject-matter expert and exemplary performer.
Subject-matter experts are often supervisors or specialists who don’t currently do the job for which they’re considered experts.Â Exemplary performers (exemplars), by contrast, do do that job, and are recognized as exemplary by peers and by management.
In real life, management sometimes calls an exemplar a subject-matter expert.Â I don’t argue, but I tend to be on my guard.Â The very term “subject-matter expert” hints at a subject — a body of knowledge that’s out there, somewhere, one that someone’s going to assimilate.Â Or get assimilated by.
If you’re developing training when there are few straightforward answers — the kind of work that concept workers engage in — exemplars are an invaluable resource.
The key is to work with them to focus on challenging, real-life problems that are important or occur frequently.
In other words:
- Have them identify (and justify) those high-value situations; don’t ask them “what subjects should we include?”
- Focus on how to apply skill, not on the subject matter.
- Ask the exemplars to apply existing procedures and rules to realistic problems; don’t assume that the stated approaches are either correct or complete.
At a government agency, John and I worked with exemplars to develop training for a newcomer who’d just taken over a project.Â They described criteria that should apply to certain kinds of decisions.Â Then, we asked them to work through similar decisions they’d actually made.
This process almost always reveals “criteria” that no one uses.Â It also tends to reveal different but acceptable approaches: a lot of surprises and quite a bit of “yes, that makes sense, and that would work.”Â Those discussions also produced finer-grained criteria or considerations.
One caution: as John points out, problems that exemplars find interesting are often peripheral.Â They don’t happen often, and so stand out.Â Thus the need for grounding: “Is this the kind of problem that the (newcomer, in this case) is likely to face?Â Is it one that’s important in the first 6 – 12 months?”
We built several case-based workshops on some aspect of taking up a new project: how to avoid micromanaging, how to deal with requests for information (a potential time sink), how to evaluate budget proposals.
Starting from basic principles and background material, each participant created his own response to a case, then compared that with those of teammates.Â Teams developed and reported a group response.Â Finally, a pair of exemplars (who worked the same cases during the workshop) shared their responses.Â Most cases involved more than one round of individual and group work.
When there’s no single right answer, you need to work with principles and rules of thumb.Â You need to compare your judgment with that of others and to reflect on the differences.Â And you need to do these things more than once.
So the workshops gave new project managers limited but concentrated practice in solving high-value challenges that appear randomly during the first year on the job.Â The “school solutions” were created by exemplars, not by instructional designers.
There’s no easy way to do this, but the results can be… exemplary.