Episode 11: The Most Dangerous Assumption about Your Internal Expertise

Welcome to the Working with SMEs Podcast. This week our cohost Nathan Eckel leads a discussion about why all your corporate expert knowledge is not equal. Nathan says that this is the “fun-est” episode we’ve done, and he gets a bit PG-rated but as it turns out, kids can stay in the room.

In our conversation, we talk about the most dangerous assumption that you can make about your corporate knowledge – and that is to decide nothing is important enough to capture. The second most dangerous assumption  is that everything is equally important. Takeaway: Make sure you know what’s important, specific to your organization, and spend your finite resources to codify that.

“Not all your corporate knowledge is equal…capture the things you can’t replicate.”

Thank you for listening! We encourage your comments below.


Stop Dissing Your Experts! They Are Not “Brilliant Jerks”


During the last several weeks I have seen several titles of workshops on how to work with SMEs that bothered me, and I feel the need to step forward and speak up in defense of experts.  I don’t vent often, but this needs to be said.

No, I won’t call out the sponsors of the workshops, but I will call out the pattern of disrespect because it offends me to see experts insulted. In fact, let me suggest that if people who work with experts do not respect the people they work with or enjoy the job, they should find other work or change their attitudes.

Here’s what I have seen:

  • One workshop offered help on how to work with “brilliant jerks”. Seriously? If you think someone is a jerk, why would you want to work with them? Even more poignantly, why in the world do you think they would want to work with you? When you resort to name-calling, it demeans not only the other person but it demeans yourself.
  • Another workshop insinuated it will help you deal with experts in a way that suggested deer-hunting or working in a morgue. This particular company said it can help you “snag, tag and bag” your expert. The image is really quite macabre when you think about it.
  • A third consultant suggested that experts are sort of goofy and need to be managed in a way that is manipulative.

A Real Methodology that Respects Everyone

Yes, good people skills are essential to working with experts. In fact, good “soft skills” – as they are called in the training industry – help in all relationships. My colleague Nathan Eckel is an expert on working with subject matter experts from a soft skills perspective.  He is an expert in leadership skills. In fact, he speaks and writes on how to “lead” experts from a 360 degree perspective. That attitude, one of leading another in a relationship of mutual respect, is a positive approach.

He and I often tease each other about our different mindsets about working with experts. Nathan is about soft skills and I am about process, templates and methodology. He points out that we actually are both about all of it but we focus on different parts. Certainly, we recognize the need for both approaches and the value of having a combination of those skills in any project.

Nathan says, “We differentiate what we do, and we both add value to everyone by valuing everyone. Our work is beyond the ‘ID (instructional design) zone’ because we want the whole team working and playing well together to get results.  We both know it’s better to be in the performance zone than the ID zone.”

Especially because I have known and listened to Nathan speak on this issue, he has made me particularly sensitive to the way we work with, talk to and talk about the experts we have the honor of knowing and learning from. A respectful attitude ultimately spells the success or failure of your training project. More important, they lead to success or failure in life.

If someone thinks they are working with a “brilliant jerk”, guess who the real “jerk” might be?

Episode 10: What is Your Competitive Advantage?

In this episode of the Working with SMEs podcast, cohost Nathan Eckel and I talk about how to decide what to capture for business continuity by determining your competitive advantages.

We start by talking about Nathan’s book, Open Source Instructional Design, in which he discusses the people skills of working with subject matter experts. His book is available here.

Not all businesses in an industry need to preserve the same knowledge. Here we discuss how to think about about your competitive advantages so you know what to spend your valuable, finite training dollars to preserve.

Thank you for listening! Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Setting Up Your SME for Success


If you plan to set your SME loose to build your training program from scratch, give them some upfront direction to get them off to a sure start. Perhaps you are asking them to do a knowledge dump into your software or learning app or will they be delivering audio, video, slides or articles. Before you send them the log in information and disappear, make sure you have given them enough direction so they can be successful in their efforts to build a great knowledge resource.

Here are a few essential Do’s and Don’ts to keep them out of the weeds and focused on the task at hand.


  1. Schedule a pre-launch or pre-build meeting where you familiarize them with the goals of the project. Explain why the project is necessary and what it will achieve for the business.
  2. If you have learning objectives, be very clear about what the learner should be able to DO with the knowledge (assemble a widget, lead a team meeting, sell something, etc) so they can deliver steps or information that leads to outcomes.
  3. Familiarize them with the software or whatever platform they will be using to impart their knowledge. Make them aware of all its features, shortcuts and capabilities so they can be most efficient. Make sure they have access to a tech person to answer questions.
  4. Give them an approximate length of either the full project or chunk it out in time or word count limits. A general outline can help keep them on track.
  5. Give them a deadline and check in (at least!) at the halfway mark to make sure they can meet it.


  1. Rely on the SME to give you exactly what you need. Ask specific questions or give them an outline.
  2. Ignore them after they’ve started. Check in with them soon after they’ve begun to make sure they are able to do what you have asked. Provide corrective direction early.
  3. Involve them in discussions about look, feel, graphic design. Perhaps you can share it after they’ve delivered their content if their input is needed, valued or if they are interested.
  4. Distract the SME with unrelated questions or peripheral requests. Keep them focused on the learning objectives and the outline, if you’ve got one.
  5. Ask them to build assessments and exercises. You can involve them in that role after the main information is complete.

Role clarity is key to success in these partnerships. As the training professional and instructional designer, you can keep the goals of the project and the steps in your line of sight and that frees your experts to deliver their content in a structured way under your guidance.

Sex, Drugs and Russian Hacks

As an FYI to my readers, I enjoy receiving comments and having discussions with you. We have a comment filter set because sometimes spam gets through. Some weeks we may get one or two pieces of spam, but some weeks we get more than 50. Usually they are easy to spot because they are advertisements for sex websites, online pharmacies and lately they are in what appears to be Russian, as well. We have to manually delete each one to avoid inadvertently deleting legitimate comments.

If your comment doesn’t appear right away, it is because we go through each comment to separate the real readers from the bots. We will eventually update our system and put in a bot filter on the front end. For now, thank you for your patience.

And please do comment below. We’ll be looking for it!


The Disease of Experts

Ronald Reagan is credited with saying the problem with a certain group of people is that so much of what they know isn’t true.

In the interest of bipartisanship, I’ll refrain from mentioning the group he targeted in his remark. But the essence of the remark is pointed: so much of what we think we know ain’t so. Experts aren’t immune to this disease. In fact due to the mantle of infallibility draped on some experts,  they may be more susceptible to error than other mere humans.

“The disease of experts” is a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell.  This morning, leadership guru Michael Hyatt called attention to Gladwell’s phenomenon in his blog as it relates to leadership, and it bears discussion here, as well.

To quote Hyatt’s blog, “Gladwell called overconfidence ‘the disease of experts.’  They think they know more than they actually do. In fact, they make mistakes precisely because they have knowledge.”

Overcoming Overconfidence

Experts are often accustomed to being the smartest person in the room, and this can lead to overconfidence. Certainly expertise in any field by definition requires extensive study. Some say it equates to 10,000 hours of study in one area, which translates to about five years in a full-time job or the years put into gaining a PhD. That kind of work lays the foundation for earned credibility and respect in your field.

Hyatt often talks about the value of humility, and this subject is one that gave him an opportunity to remind his readers, “What we really need are leaders who are humble and willing to listen.”

Beyond that prescription for leaders, I would like to add some advice for experts in any field who are called upon to transfer their knowledge to others.

  1. Question everything. Yesterday’s truth is tomorrow’s myth. See “flat earth meets Galileo.”
  2. Stay current in your field. Some say we now collect as much knowledge in two years as we had from the beginning of human history until today. People around the world are always building on each others’ knowledge. Remain tapped in to other experts in your field so you are aware of the latest developments.
  3. Remember your humble beginnings and treat learners’ questions with respect. Honor the next generation who will build upon your work. They will carry your hard work forward and create the next great leaps in science, technology, education, the arts, business and industry.

After all, it is that student with the perplexing question who leads to the next great leap in your field. Honor the learners and leave a foundation that you have helped build so they can move your field forward to the next levels of innovation.

Answer learners simply and sincerely. Tell them the truth as best you know it, so what they know is so.

Episode 9: Capture Your Most Important Knowledge First

Welcome to the Working with SMEs Podcast. This week our cohost Nathan Eckel leads a discussion abut how to determine what internal knowledge needs to be captured and why.

We talk about making sure you are preserving knowledge that has lasting value and is worth preserving. Some information has value today but may not help your organization meet the challenges of the future. Knowledge that will have historical value is worth preserving, too, but may not require your urgent attention.

Recommended resource: Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World by Peter H Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

Thank you for listening! We encourage your comments below.

Preserving Corporate Expertise is a Risk Management Issue

Risk Management

If you hear something twice, pay attention. In this case, I heard the same comment three times in as many weeks. That comment was about the importance of preserving corporate expertise as a risk management issue. Yes, it is.

Expertise by definition takes time to acquire, is rare and is not easily replaced, which translates into expensive. The experts in your organization are holding some valuable cards, and losing your experts and their knowledge could cost you delays, customers, sales and even the competitive advantage you hold within your industry.

To find your knowledge vulnerabilities, make an assessment of your critical assets by stratifying them according to whatever criteria points to your most acute assets. Not all information is important but if you analyze your company by people, products and divisions you are unlikely to overlook anything.  You may not know all the information you need to retain without a fairly thorough organizational analysis, so it is worthwhile to do a periodic assessment of your potential losses.

Any internal knowledge assessment is strengthened by doing an external scan to give you a strong grasp of the state of your industry and what your competitors are doing as well as a grasp of how your business and your industry fits into the larger global economy. You may have cornered the market on dial telephones but you needed to understand the impact of mobile phone technology to understand where your business was headed. That kind of information will tell you what to keep and what new kinds of expertise you need to begin to acquire to stay in your game.

Because knowledge management is (or should be) an integral part of your corporate strategic plan, it argues for making sure your training department remains close to your C-suite to align missions. Such alignment will help prevent wasting scarce training dollars on short-sighted training efforts.

Especially with the pace of change both technologically and geopolitically, you can’t afford to ignore a thorough analysis of your knowledge management needs that considers your company’s vulnerabilities now and into the future. That is why your knowledge management plan should be an integral part of your corporate risk assessment.

Episode 8: Make Sure Your Knowledge Capture Supports Your Succession Plan

In this episode of the Working with SMEs podcast, cohost Nathan Eckel leads a discussion about the importance of doing a thorough knowledge scan and capture in your organization to support succession planning efforts.

While it is likely that any new leadership is going to make some changes, a thorough assessment of the important knowledge assets in your organization can help new leaders make critical decisions and support their efforts to move the enterprise forward. As Nathan points out, often it is the soft, coded or unarticulated knowledge that is the special sauce that makes your company successful.

So it is important as you plan for the future of your organization that you do a thorough assessment of your assets today,  and that you make sure you retain that information that you can’t afford to lose.

We welcome your comments and feedback. Thanks for listening.

Sensitivity, Ageism and Country Music: Should We Provide Tips for Working with Retiring Employees?

recording engineer

Everyone has a definition of heaven. For some, it’s a golf course or a gourmet kitchen or an endless beach. For me, heaven is a recording studio. One of my hobbies is singing and songwriting and there is nothing like hearing your idea fully developed. About 15 years ago, I went to Nashville to record a song demo at a studio using the local studio talent. I worked with an arranger who also ran the studio session and he organized all the details – chose the studio, hired the musicians, and wrote out the arrangements.

Because I came in from out of town, he coordinated the session so that we could record all five songs to the final mix in one day. That gave us time to do an arranging session the day before and allowed time to set up appointments with song publishers to shop the tunes afterwards.

When he was hiring recording engineers – those are the guys you see behind glass at the big consoles with all the dials and knobs and sliders – he said, “I hired a young guy to stay with us through the final mix. They are the only ones with the energy for a long session like this.”

He surprised me when he said that, but it made perfect sense. It was something I had never considered. But he did this for a living, and he knew how demanding it would be so I trusted his judgment.

The Long Haul

A long session of five songs, from basic tracks through instrumental overdubs, basic vocal and background vocals, and finally to blending them all together, choosing levels at which each instrument and voice will appear and putting it through some electronic magic so it sounds good on a little speaker – takes time. Some big studio albums take months to record. When you are recording a song demo, it needs to be good but not final-product perfection. We flew through the whole thing in about 12 hours.

Nashville studio musicians are some of the best people on the planet. They are efficient and flawless. They record songs all day, every day. Think factory work for people who play guitar. Everyone comes in, does their thing for an hour or two or three, and then leaves. But the recording engineers, they are in it for the long haul. They have to listen to every note, work with every player to get a performance that is consistent with the vision, and keep their ears tuned right up until the final mix. It is exhausting. And they are on the clock. We needed a finished product by morning to get to meetings with publishers.

That’s why the arranger hired the young guy. Even I slept through the final mixes, and they woke me up to listen to the result around midnight. It felt a little like having a baby by C-section, you know, missing the actual birth. Nonetheless, the baby was born and we had a great demo.

The question is: Was the arranger practicing ageism by choosing a young engineer to ride through the whole process? Or was he just being sensitive to the fact that, as he explained, an older guy wasn’t going to last at the board in a non-stop, full-attention session for 15 hours?

Your Retiring Workers

That incident came to mind this week because a similar situation applies when working with retiring colleagues in a training situation. When I mentioned to a group of trainers recently that some retiring or retired workers might not have the stamina of younger workers, and may need considerations and adaptations, some were shocked that I would discuss it. Perhaps I was insensitive in the way I worded my comments. And trust me, in no way did I intend to insinuate that people over 60 are frail or deficient. Quite the opposite. Some of my best friends (ahem) are retired, and yes, they would be the first to admit they have more trouble walking, they go to bed earlier, and find themselves shopping for replacement parts.

One 63-year-old friend who works full time in a job that requires five, 12-hour days and submits to an annual physical requiring he stay in tip-top shape said, “I do everything I always did. I just do it less.”

Another 67-year-old yogi friend tours with rock bands and said, “I am in the best shape of my life.” I have seen him play guitar perched atop another yogi and I would have to agree.

All that aside, I am suggesting that when you work with older workers, you may need to consider things like stamina, eyesight and hearing. It’s just a biological fact. As I age, my eyesight isn’t nearly as good as it once was. I need to compensate for that.

I have worked with people in their 80s who have more to offer than they ever did, with perspective and wisdom and humor that comes with age. They are the most brilliant people, and I have learned most from them. But I paced interview sessions, allowed for hearing issues, and so forth, not to pander to them or to be condescending but rather out of consideration and sensitivity.

It isn’t ageism, as I see it. By mentioning the fact that older workers might (I emphasize MIGHT) need some considerations regarding the biological realities of aging, my intention is to invite sensitivity from people who work with older colleagues.

If my remarks- written or spoken – imply any inherent insufficiency of older workers, I apologize to anyone I’ve offended. I also hope that as we work with people who are approaching or have well surpassed the legal age of retirement, we consider different levels of physical tolerance than we expect from colleagues in their 20s.

Please comment on this issue. I invite a discussion and other perspectives.