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Subject Matter Experts: The Michael Jordans of Training

Michael Jordan was the best basketball player on the planet. Yet he’s proven to be a mediocre (at best) team owner. Similarly, subject matter experts can be the smartest people in their field. But training is about more than expertise. The following tale illustrates how people responsible for training results can make the most out of subject matter experts who are unfamiliar with instructional design and adult learning principles.

Adrian knew the question was coming.

She had been managing training efforts in the international development field for eight years and now she was attempting to make the leap into the tech sector. Three minutes into the interview, the recruiter asked the question Adrian had been anticipating:

“I have to be honest, the hiring manager is really looking for someone with a technology background. But you bring some international experience, so we thought we’d bring you in to talk. You’ve been doing such meaningful work, but you don’t have a technology background. How would you make an impact here?”

Adrian was grateful for this question. Many recruiters had passed her over because she didn’t have deep technical expertise.

“That’s a fair question. To be honest, I’m a political science major and I didn’t have much experience or knowledge about malaria either until I went to work for my previous employer. In fact, they weren’t even sure they needed a full time training person because they generally sub-contracted their learning interventions to subject matter experts – doctors or researchers or others in the field who had been working on the problem for a long, long time.’

“They were struggling with realizing results from their malaria control training programs in sub-Saharan Africa. So they brought me on board.’

“I took a look at their training materials. They must have had a considerable source of funding, because I don’t think I’d ever seen such professional looking materials. So well laid out. So detailed. They had paid a lot of money to some of the top malaria experts in the world to put together this training program.’

“The materials had everything you wished to know about malaria… and a lot of things you probably don’t want to know about malaria. Honestly, that disease is just one big scourge on this planet.’

“The experts had put together a 2-day training program with a comprehensive history of the disease. The program had facts about what caused the disease and how to prevent it. They offered enormous amounts of empirical evidence. They instructed trainees how to use mosquito nets, what repellents were used with the nets and then they even gave out free nets to entire communities. Yet when they went to study the impact of this training program six months later, they found very few people using the nets.’

“Whether you’re talking about malaria or technology, the fact is that subject matter experts are just like Michael Jordan. He was the best player ever. SMEs are the best in their field. But Michael Jordan has been a disaster as an NBA owner, because a successful franchise is more than just an amazing player. And training is about so much more than technical expertise.’

“My former employer had spent tons of money on the training program created by the SMEs. And there was great content. I felt all we needed to do was to build around it a bit.’

“So I created an activity at the beginning of the training program in which the facilitator asked the group whether they would ever sleep out under the stars in a national park with lions roaming around. Participants laughed. It was a ridiculous question. They’d get eaten alive. And then the facilitator asked why people sleep without mosquito nets. It offered a way for trainees in the community to relate to the material.’

“Then we taught some of the SME-generated content about how to use the mosquito nets and how to teach other families who didn’t attend the training how to use the mosquito nets. We actually had them practice putting nets up. We gave the trainees a simple checklist for their family bed time routine.’

“In the end, we actually cut the training program in half! The experts had loaded the curriculum with lots of facts and figures that the SMEs felt important. I revised it to include only the information that was going to be important to the community members in order to change their behavior.’

“Within six months, we were finding that some communities had 90%-100% of families using mosquito nets. While subject matter experts with deep technical knowledge often have a desire to share their expertise with others, they don’t often approach training design with the end-user in mind.’

“I’m sorry, I’ve given you a long answer to your question. I don’t have a background in technology. But there are a lot of other people here who do. I’d see my role as figuring out what kind of training our customers need, then opening up the heads of our engineers and programmers to get answers, and finally putting together a learning experience that our customers can easily digest and do something with.”

Working with subject matter experts doesn’t need to be stressful if you’re willing to embrace their strength: they are the Michael Jordan of training. In the event that a subject matter expert has “designed” a training program for which you’re responsible, look for opportunities to build around the SME’s content. Sometimes, for political reasons, an expert guest speaker is enlisted to “train” an audience. Finding an opportunity to prepare the audience through a quick “anchor” question or activity prior to the guest speaker and then finding a way to de-brief the SME’s lecture afterwards are ways to ensure the learners will be able to use the material when they leave the training room.

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