I did a professional development mentoring session with someone new yesterday.  They are a learning professional.  We explored their workplace challenges to help identify target areas for development.  One that arose was working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).  Yep, I’ve heard this from others and experienced it myself.  SMEs are typically in demand to help with troubleshooting, training others and working on improvement projects.  Their capacity is stretched.

Sometimes people believe that SMEs want to hold onto their knowledge because it gives them power, job security and status.  In my experience, this is fairly rare.  I’ve found more often that they are happy to share their knowledge but struggle to do this effectively due to constraints such as time, an environment that presents barriers to knowledge sharing, or inadequate knowledge-sharing skills.

Let’s assume that SME mindset isn’t the key reason that it’s difficult for learning professionals to work with them. Access and capacity are often the most significant obstacles to engaging SMEs to provide input to development of learning solutions.  One approach that is helpful is to set expectations and gain agreement up front with SMEs regarding how you will work together.  One of the best examples I’ve seen of this is from Justine Jardine.  In episode 12 of Learning Uncut podcast Justine discusses her work developing a learning solution for a software rollout that was implemented using agile project management.   Today I sent a link to the podcast to my new mentee – as I often do for people who are looking for ideas to improve how they work with SMEs.

Here’s an extract from the podcast transcript where she describes how she engaged and set expectations with the SMEs (who she refers to as key users and super users):

So that was how the whole capability strategy was developed around that key user, super user training the end user approach. Now, these key and super users have been chosen by the business. We weren’t involved in the selection of them. So one of the things we needed to make sure that they understood what was expected of them and also for us to get to know them a little bit better and to find out in what areas they may need more support, depending on who they were in their previous experience.

So right up front I put together a survey that we sent out to the key end super users as a way of communicating the expectations, sort of listing out, “Have you been involved in an implementation project before? Have you been involved in training end users before? If yes, please tell us your previous experience,” that sort of thing, and also to get their commitment. So there was a question that was saying, “If you attend the sprint showcases, you are, say, involved in the meetings, and in the build, you’re given the training content, do you think you’ll feel comfortable to be able to on-train end users?” So it was both sort of setting expectations, communicating expectations, as well as getting feedback from the key end super users.

And I really found that of value because it was kind of laying it all out. We then had fortnightly meetings with the key and super users to keep them engaged, to continue getting their input. And I just really felt that the whole success of a project like this is dependent on those key and super users being knowledgeable enough and comfortable and confident enough to be able to on- train the end users. So definitely we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of engaging them and keeping them engaged throughout the project.

Note – I co-host Learning Uncut podcast.  We release a fortnightly episode where a learning professional shares the story of a project or initiative that they’ve implemented in their organisation.  Go to the podcast landing page for more information.



  • Scott Young

    Hey Justine – I too have discovered the wealth of knowledge and once engaged the momentous opportunity to share their knowledge along with willingness and often more comfortable role of being a mentor / coach. Often in a non formal way these experts are already using coaching techniques with their peers


    • Michelle Ockers

      Agree Scott – I think the idea that ‘knowledge is power’ and people will hoard their knowledge as a source of power is no longer valid in a highly networked world. Sharing knowledge increases visibility of a person’s expertise and can raise status rather than lower it. For busy SMEs it’s often also a way of freeing up capacity to do more value-adding, interesting work. Great to be in a role where you can help them do this.


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