social-200284_640Subject matter experts (SMEs) are indispensable to the development of training. They have the knowledge, often mostly in their heads, that is the meat and potatoes of any course.

As an instructional designer, your job is to document what they know in such a way that others can learn it.

But, how do you know to whom to turn?

Here are 6 criteria for selecting the SME who can help you the most.

  1. They have the recipe for the secret sauce. The best SMEs do something different than everyone else that results in stand out performance. And, they are actually in the trenches doing the work you are interviewing them about, not just managing it.
  2. They can explain what they do and why. It’s not enough to be a top performer, though, the best SMEs are also able to walk you through what they do and explain the reasoning behind their methodology.
  3. They can break it down. This is the tricky part. Often when we become expert at something, we naturally develop an unconscious competence that makes it difficult to deconstruct our expertise. The best SMEs are able to break down complicated tasks and complex thinking processes into digestible chunks that a non-expert can understand.
  4. They are available. The best SMEs are usually in demand because they excel at what they do. However, they are able to make sufficient time to be interviewed, answer follow up questions, and review materials.
  5. They are willing. The best SMEs are not threatened by the prospect of sharing what they know – their recipe for the secret sauce. Rather, they are honored to be recognized for their expertise and excited to share their knowledge with their colleagues.
  6. They are patient. Being a SME can be tedious. It’s hard thinking to break down what might feel as natural as breathing and explain it to someone else. To get an idea of just how tedious, think about breaking down in minute detail all the precise steps you follow to back out of the driveway. Are you eyes rolling yet? The best SMEs are patient enough to good-naturedly do just this without outwardly rolling their eyes.

So, how many of these exemplary human beings do you need to develop a typical training course? In this case, the old adage of the more, the merrier does not apply. I like to keep the number of SMEs I work with to 2 to 3 per course.

I find this is usually a sufficient number to access the in-the-trenches expertise I need. And, I’ve noticed when I have more SMEs, it tends to slow the instructional down process down. It’s harder to coordinate schedules, get reviews completed, and even reach agreement on key points.