Subject Matter Experts: Working with SMEs to Develop Training
Subject Matter Experts: By Dan Tobin, Next Generation of Leaders
There are many times when training staff need to work with subject matter experts (SMEs), both internal and external to their companies. This article focuses on the challenge of working with internal Subject Matter Experts. Here are two examples of these types of situations:
• There is a training need for a new product or service that your company is planning to introduce to the market. The training group may be asked to develop training for those who will sell the product, those who will service the product, those who will provide the service, etc.
• There is a training need for employees who will use a new company system, e.g., SAP, or Oracle, or a new manufacturing system, a new call center response system, or a new performance management system.
Supporting the Introduction of a New Product or Service by your Company
In many companies, a member of the training staff may be assigned to develop new training materials, or a new instructor-led or elearning program, for a new product or service. If this is how your company works, you should try to become part of the product development and introduction team as early in the development process as possible, and certainly no later than the beta testing of the new product or service. The more you can learn, and the earlier you can learn it, the better off you are.
Sometimes, the product development team will resist putting a training person on the team – “What do they know? How can they possibly help us? We’re the engineers/product designers/service developers – we know what we need to do, and putting that training person on our team is only going to slow us down.”
Try this argument to overcome these types of objections from the technical staff (Subject Matter Experts SMEs):
• The product isn’t going to do the company any good unless our salespeople know how to sell it, our service people know how to install it and fix it, and our customers know how to use it. We want to make certain that the training for all of these groups is ready when you are ready to announce the product. We don’t want to hold up the product introduction because we can’t provide the needed training to all of these groups.
In some cases, the product or service may be so complex that you really need to have the Subject Matter Experts SME provide the initial training. In these cases, the Subject Matter Experts SME may object to working with someone from the training group with an argument such as: “Look. I know this product inside and out. I’ll just get up and talk about it. The technical staff, from here in the company or from customers, will be so impressed with the depth my knowledge and have such confidence in my technical knowledge and abilities, it won’t make any difference whether we have pretty training materials or not – they’ll get all the answers from me and they can take notes.”
Try these arguments to overcome these objections:
• This may be true for the customers who will participate in the beta-test for the product. But if the product takes off like you hope it will, you aren’t going to be able to provide all the training yourself. And while customers for the beta-test may be satisfied with your notes, as more and more customers buy the product, they are going to expect that the training materials are as professional as the product. We can help you put together a more professional presentation for your initial training session and, at the same time, learn what we need to learn about the product so we can start working on the formal customer training materials.
• We acknowledge your technical expertise. But we are the experts at training our internal support groups and our customers. Let us help you translate your technical jargon into language that your audience will understand. Let us help you put together a powerful, professional presentation – it can only make you look better.
I was in charge of a customer seminar/road show to introduce and demonstrate the company’s newest products. The show was being professionally produced and we had recruited speakers from marketing and product management to present the seminar. Several of the engineers who would be traveling with the seminar to support the equipment and do demonstrations asked if they could also be speakers at the seminar. I had no objection to this, but I insisted that they take the same presentation skills workshop that all of the other speakers were required to take to prepare for the seminar. The engineers objected: “We don’t need to waste our time on this training. Customers will see that we know what we are talking about and will soak up the information from us. Our technical expertise will be sufficient without wasting our time to learn how to present.” I forced the issue and got them to take the workshop, despite their protests.
A few years later, I was visiting one of the company’s sites and, at lunch time, one of the engineers who had participated in the seminar sat down next to me in the cafeteria. After exchanging greetings, he told me, “You know, I just got a big promotion.” “Congratulations,” I said. “I’m sure it was well-deserved.”
“You know,” he continued, “I’ve been thinking about it. And I came to the conclusion that the presentation workshop you made me attend a few years ago was probably as much responsible for the promotion as my technical knowledge and skills.”
“That’s an interesting observation,” I replied. “Why do you say that?”
“It’s just that engineers in general are such poor presenters, the fact that I have good presentation skills separated me from my peers who are just a bright technically as me, but can’t make a good presentation to save their lives.”
Training on a New Company System
Typically, when a new system is being introduced to a company, there is a core group of people who work on the installation and who will support the system once it is installed. It is vital that the trainers who will provide the initial training on the system form a close working relationship with that core group.
The first questions to ask about any new company system (e.g., a manufacturing system, SAP, Oracle, call center response system, performance management system, etc.) are:
• How many people need to be trained?
• To what level do they need to be trained?
• Where are the people located?
• If the company is purchasing the system from a vendor, what training materials are available from the vendor?
• What training or job aids can be created to help people use the system?
I received a call one day from the company’s CFO. He said that the company had just spent $300,000 on a new physical asset tracking system to keep track of all physical assets such as office furniture and equipment. The vendor was now proposing to develop an elearning program to train people on how to use the system. Their price to create the elearning was $100,000. “I have no idea whether this is a reasonable number or not.” Can you help me out here?”
I arranged a meeting the next day with the CFO and the person leading the team in charge of the new system. After some discussion, I learned that:
• The system was very intuitive to use.
• There would be about 200 people, worldwide, who would enter data into the system.
• There would be about 15 people worldwide who would need deeper expertise on the system.
• The core group, who would provide the ultimate back-up for all of the users, had about eight people and they already had the knowledge they needed.
The training solution we designed included:
• A one-hour webcast for the 200 worldwide users. We conducted the webcast several times to accommodate different time zones and recorded the webcast for those who could not attend the live webcasts.
• A one-page laminated instruction sheet for the 200 worldwide users.
• A three-hour webinar for the 15 people who needed more in-depth training.
The training group created all the learning materials for both groups, working with the Subject Matter Experts SMEs in the core group and documentation from the system vendor. The training group conducted the one-hour webcast, with members of the core group in attendance to answer questions, and trained two members of the core group who gave the three-hour webcast.
The total cost, including the cost of the webcasts, was about $15,000.
Some Additional Strategies for Working with Subject Matter Experts SMEs
Here is another strategy I have used to work with an Subject Matter Experts SME when it was clear that the Subject Matter Experts SME, rather than the training staff, needed to do the actual training.
I once asked an engineer if he could put together a 2-hour training session as part of a larger training program I was writing. “Sure,” he said. “Tell me when and where I need to be and I’ll show up and do the session.”
I offered to have one of the instructional designers on my training staff work with him to organize the presentation and prepare materials for the training participants. “I don’t have time for that,” the engineer said. “Just tell me where I need to be, and I’ll provide the training. Just make sure that I have at least one big white board that I can draw on.”
I knew that the engineer was very busy with other projects, but he was the best Subject Matter Experts SME the company had on the topic. I wasn’t going to win this argument. Instead, I asked, “Could you give the presentation twice? Once, say next week. The second time will be about a month from now when we hold the formal training session.” He agreed.
The next week, he did his two-hour presentation. I put these people in the audience for this preliminary presentation:
• An instructional designer
• A graphics designer
• Two members of the target audience for the training
• A camera operator
The two members of the target audience helped to focus the presentation on the needs of those who would be trained. These two people made comments on what material was on target, what material was superfluous for the target audience, and what topics should be added to the presentation. The instructional designer and the graphics designer who attended used their notes from the session, along with the video we recorded, to prepare an agenda for the later training session and to prepare slides (rather than the hand-drawn diagrams the SME Subject Matter Experts had put on every inch of the white board) and other materials for the target audience.
About a week before the main training session, I went to see the SME Subject Matter Experts. I went through the agenda with him and gave him the slides and materials that my staff had prepared. “Could you use the agenda to organize what you are going to say next week? And here are some slides that I had my people make up so you don’t have to spend so much time drawing.”
The SME Subject Matter Experts was very grateful for the help. “It would have taken me days to put this stuff together, and I just don’t have the time. Thanks.”
An important point from this story concerns having members of the target audience work with the SME Subject Matter Experts to ensure that the audience gets the information it needs. I once worked with a telecommunications equipment manufacturer to put together a multi-day training program for its sales and sales support staff on a set of new products it was introducing to the market. All of the training was going to be done by the SMEs Subject Matter Experts, in this case marketing, product management, and engineering personnel. I provided a half-day workshop on how to put together the training materials. I also gave each presenter the names and contact information for two people from the target audience who had agreed to work with them to help target the content to the needs of the audience.
About half of the SMEs Subject Matter Experts contacted their two audience resources, while the other half didn’t bother – “We’re the experts on these products. We know what they need.” At the end of each session, we asked the audience to complete an evaluation. On a 5-point scale, those SMEs Subject Matter Experts who had worked with the audience resources ahead of time scored an average of 4.4. Those who didn’t use the audience resources in developing their sessions scored an average of 3.7. This is a very significant difference.
Most training groups have to rely on Subject Matter Experts SMEs Subject Matter Experts to help them learn the material they will be training or to actually do the training themselves. But, as shown above, the training group can add great value to the training process by working closely with the SMEs Subject Matter Experts .
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