SME? Not for me

Mr. SmeeIn training departments, there’s hardly a more common term than subject-matter expert. Often you’ll hear the initials (S. M. E.) or, alas, the acronym sounded as a single word, bringing to mind Captain Hook’s first mate. That’s an image I’d rather not conjure up, at least outside of a longboat.

The problem with “subject-matter expert” isn’t expertise per se, or even the notion that there’s some body of knowledge — the subject — in which this person is expert.

(You can argue philosophically about whether there’s “content,” or a cluster of skills, but I think you’ll agree that in the world of work you can find people who know relevant facts that other people don’t.)

Often, when clients look for subject-matter experts, they turn to people who presumably know a lot about whatever the job, process, or task is — regardless of whether they actually perform the job.

When I want to know what people really do on the job in question, I avoid even saying “subject-matter expert.” Instead, I borrow a much more helpful term from my friend and colleague John Howe, formerly a training director at the U. S. Department of Labor: I look for an expert practitioner.

That’s someone who:

  • Currently does the job
  • Produces exemplary results

…and who’s widely seen as outstanding in those two dimensions.

A subject-matter expert can trace the theoretical route of some process (along with its uncles, grandparents, and third cousins twice removed). An expert practitioner can tell you from direct experience how that process operates in the real world of work, why she makes the decisions she does, and what happens as a result.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t seek out or listen to a subject-matter expert. The programmer who developed ways for Amtrak clerks to program customized commands on their terminals was the western hemisphere’s biggest expert on the technical parameters of this programming.

But the ticket agents and reservation agents who put those keys to work developed myriad ways to apply that programming to real-life problems. Without expert practitioners showing what they did and why they did it, training in how to use the programmed function keys would have been less practical.

And less likely to produce the desired productivity.

(This post is part of the Working/Learning blog carnival for March 2008.)

5 thoughts on “SME? Not for me

  1. Dave, thanks for pointing out this important distinction. “Expert practitioner” will help us get access to the most useful person. A nice benefit: Expert practitioners whose brains I’ve picked have been too busy to write anything for the course–the only written info I get from them is a copy of their personal cheat sheet. This helps make course development efficient, because when no one in the client organization has invested a lot of time “writing the course,” we don’t have to spend a lot of time rewriting and explaining our rewrites.

  2. It’s especially useful to deal with an expert practitioner when you’re trying to close the gap between theory and practice, or when you’re outside the realm of mainly procedural tasks.

    At a federal agency, John and I worked with exemplars to identify techniques they used to build effective working relationships with the outside contractors whose work they oversaw. The policy manual had flowcharts, but these sometimes resembled “how a bill becomes law” from your high-school civics class.

    We were able to create case-study exercises for newcomers to this job, with guidance and feedback based on what successful performers had actually done.

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