Greg Owen-Boger - May 3, 2017

Help! My SME Just Went Rogue… Now What?!

If you’ve ever worked with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in the training room, the title of this article is probably a familiar one.

SMEs can and do go rogue.

It’s not unusual for a Talent Development professional to lament the fact that the SMEs they work with don’t follow the facilitation guide or that they alter (or even cut) well-planned activities. If this has happened to you, don’t pull your hair out. Help is on its way.

When we work directly with SMEs, we hear comments such as:

  • “The order of these slides doesn’t make any sense to me at all.”
  • “I’m not going to do this activity. I don’t understand it, and it’s a waste of time.”
  • “The process that’s laid out isn’t how it is in the real world.”
  • “I’m sure this made sense to someone at some point, but I have no idea what this slide is supposed to be about. I guess I’ll just make something up.”

Often these comments are in response to a design that they simply don’t understand or an organizational structure that doesn’t fit the way they think about the subject.

Is Learning Happening?

The question that you, as the Talent Development professional, must ask is this: “Is the learning happening?” If it is happening, consider allowing the SME to continue with what he or she is doing. There are a lot of battles to fight, this doesn’t have to be one of them.

If the learning isn’t happening, or isn’t happening as efficiently as it could, then it’s time to respectfully step in and exercise your expertise in adult learning. There are a few approaches you could take.

  1. Redesign the learning so that it better matches the way your SME thinks. This will go a long way to building trust between the two of you.
  2. Explain why the learning has been designed in the way that it has, and coach the SME to work with it. Their lack of seeing the bigger picture may be causing their frustration. Make sure they understand what they’re supposed to accomplish at every step of the way and how the building blocks work to accomplish the overall goal.
  3. The third option is a combination of the previous two.

Regardless of the approach, empathize with the SME. Delivering material that you didn’t create is tricky business. Expressing empathy for their situation can go a long way in maintaining a positive working relationship.

Learn more about working with SMEs-turned-trainers in our latest book, "Effective SMEs: A Trainer's Guide for Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning" published by ATD Press. 

Written by Greg Owen-Boger

Greg Owen-Boger has been with Turpin Communication since 1995, first as a cameraman, then instructor, account manager, and now vice president. Schooled in management and the performing arts, Greg brings a diverse set of skills and experiences to the organization. Greg is one of Turpin’s facilitators and coaches. When he’s not with clients, he manages the day-to-day operations of the company. Greg is an active member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and was the 2015 President of ATD, Chicagoland Chapter. He is a popular speaker, frequent blogger, and the co-author of the book The Orderly Conversation: Business Presentations Redefined. His latest book, also co-authored by Dale Ludwig, launched in 2017 and is entitled Effective SMEs: A Trainer’s Guide for Helping Subject Matter Experts Facilitate Learning.