Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Subject Matter Experts are from Mars, Trainers are from Venus

…yet the relationship can work incredibly well. At times; there is a bond, there is trust and there is support for one another. At other times, emotions can run high with “heated discussions”, one giving the other silent treatment and both parties displaying general signs of ‘grumpiness or bitchiness’. Is it professional or mature?  No. Can it happen? Yes, sadly. Regardless of your job, the feelings and behaviours may sound familiar.

As a Trainer, I’ve worked with SMEs in the past and some relationships have worked very well indeed. The others, I’d rather not talk about. Looking back, I consider why the early experiences didn’t work out. Maybe that was the problem; I was new to role, I had my point to prove and I went in like the proverbial bull in a china shop.

All I wanted was for the SME(s) to ‘get on board’ as quickly as possible, for them to be at my beck and call regardless of any other jobs they had to carry out and for them to stop asking me silly questions about important and necessary stuff that I may not have thought about at the time…I am exaggerating slightly here to get my point across ... or am I?

Perhaps all the SME(s) wanted was for me to “get” the information as soon as possible, for me to be at their beck and call regardless of any other jobs I had to carry out and hope that the guy with the “special training skills” would stop asking silly questions as the information is soooo simple! I don’t speak for every SME or Trainer here but I don’t think our needs are that different after all.

Later experiences proved to be a lot more successful as both my ego and proverbial bull had stopped trying to prove their point. For me, the battles can be won or lost on the first time we meet to discuss the work. Here are a series of questions that have benefitted me when discussing the work with my neighbours from Mars for the first time. . .

  • Where are we now?
  • Where do we want to be?
  • How do we get there?

Perhaps you have heard these questions being used in a different scenario? I have, and I’m pleased to say it has been very useful. The six areas that I like to discuss, in no particular order, during the ‘how do we get there part’ tend to be;

  1. What are your roles?

This has helped me greatly by preventing awkward, difficult and challenging situations. We both need to be transparent as to what decisions we are able to make. For instance, the number of activities, how to structure each session and the aesthetics of the material would be under the Trainers’ control.

Alternatively, the SME is more likely to know what the most important elements of the content are, what the ideal pre-requisites would be and company standards alongside industry regulations.

  1. Frequency and methods for updates
  • Contact numbers, dial in codes for conference calls and/or where to meet.
  • Dates and times when you will not be available due to other meetings etc.
  • URGENT - Who else, if anybody, can I contact if you aren’t available? (vice versa)
  1. Timescales and dates


Set each other up for success by telling each other how long it may take to write the material, to review the material and how long it might take to amend it.

What is the benefit of this I hear you ask? Well, would you like to be given your material back with a whole heap of amendments to be made 3 hours before your first pilot session? No, neither would I.


  • Material sign off dates
  • Pilot sessions
  • Delivery dates
  • Post implementation review
  1. What do we actually need to achieve?

We must ensure that we are both clear on the course and session objectives. How will we know that the delegates have understood everything? What will the delegates physically have to do, what level will we measure them against and how will the final exercise be carried out?

  1. Separating the wheat from the chaff

How do we make sure that it is as streamlined as possible? People love to talk about something they either know a lot about or are incredibly passionate about. Trainers and SMEs are no different, albeit we live on different planets. At least one of us needs to take the reins to make sure the content is relevant to the objective. Here are two models that have helped me achieve this, you may be familiar with either of them. If not, you may find them interesting;

Difficulty, Importance and Frequency (DIF Analysis)

DIF Analysis is used to establish the complexity, priority and regularity of a task. Here are examples of questions to ask and what it will help to determine.

Difficulty – How difficult did you find this task when it was new to you? This will help you to decide upon the learning method.

Importance – How important is this task to your role? This will help you to determine the priority of the task.

Frequency – How often do you perform this task? This will help you to identify the scheduling of your training course.

Must, Should and Could Cover

  • Must -  What must your delegates know to carry out the job to the correct level?
  • Should -  What else should they know that might help them out from time to time?
  • Could -  These are points which would be interesting to cover, time permitting.

I would be interested to hear what other models are out there that have worked for you.

  1. Where is the SME when you are doing what you do best?

Is the SME in the training room with you? If so, great!  Use them to aid the delegates’ learning experience. It is a fine line between your delegates thinking “Who is that random person sat at the back of the room not saying anything?” or you thinking “This has somehow turned into the SME show”. Whether the SME is shy and retiring type or all jazz hands and cartwheels…nobody likes to be put on the spot! So what can you do to either of these situations?

Agree how the sessions will run, the opportunities for the SME to assist and what they could do when they need to say something important while you are in ‘mid-flow’. You’ll be amazed to hear what “not so covert” hand gestures I’ve seen people do to get the other’s attention while a session is being delivered.

So, what happens if they are unable to attend your training sessions? It’s not the end of the world as you have both worked well together. Yes, there may be parts you aren’t 100% clear on but you have the confidence, knowledge and skills to park/defer any questions you don’t know the answer to until a later date or time.

It is wise to discuss this scenario early on so that the SMEs’ expectations can be managed, they may have a to take a little more time out of their day to answer questions from the first couple of training sessions. More importantly, it is beneficial to let your delegates know when and how their questions will be answered after the session/course finishes.

To close, whether you are an SME from Mars or a Trainer from Venus, my advice is this;

Be crystal clear on your roles and responsibilities, be inquisitive by asking questions, cover as much ground at the earliest convenience for both of you and remove both your ego and proverbial bull. These aspects have worked for me, what has worked for you? We would like to hear your thoughts.

Arron Caldwell, previously an L&D Consultant at The Training Foundation