Working with SMEs in a Vacuum


I occasionally hear from readers of my blog or the books who are out there working with experts in every imaginable field and type of industry. You are all out there, gathering information for training, for organizational continuity, and just “for the record”.

Some of you, it seems, feel like you are working in a vacuum. You are trying to figure out what to capture, who and where to gather your institutional knowledge and how to store it. And people are doing amazing jobs. I am always fascinated to hear the breadth and depth of the kinds of work you are doing, and who you are doing it for. Global companies. Governments. Non-profits.

Experts in a Vacuum

I have found two types of vacuums when working with experts. One is the person or people tasked with collecting knowledge who are feeling like they are inventing processes from the ground up. (Actually, you are in many ways because of the unique nature of many of your situations.)

The other type of vacuum is when you are working with an expert in a field of their own. Sometimes experts really are the only ones who know exactly how something is done that is particular to your need. And that kind of vacuum can be daunting for people gathering information for a few reasons:

  1. You only have one source of information – your expert
  2. You have nothing to backstop you on the veracity of the information
  3. The people around the expert – and there are always people around the expert – may have alternative viewpoints or a completely different view of reality and you either a) don’t have access to them/don’t know they exist or b) can’t bypass the expert to check reality against the people around them.

If the last few paragraphs seem a bit arcane to you, they don’t relate to your situation so not to worry.

But if the last few paragraphs have hit a nerve with you, you understand the discomfort of working with experts in a vacuum. Even under the best circumstances, with good access and relationship, there are pieces you just don’t know and may never be able to pressure test against reality.

If you are working in a vacuum, don’t worry. You aren’t the only one. You are doing the best you can. Your work is appreciated or will be by those who come after you. And, if you are lucky, your work is also appreciated by the expert you are getting to know.

Do you ever feel like you are working in a vacuum?


Traditional and NextGen Experts: Webinar this Thursday

ITMPI Webinar this Thursday, October 18 at 11  a.m.

The IT Metrics and Productivity Institute is featuring a webinar on Retaining Expert Knowledge this Thursday, October 18. In it, we’ll focus on the difference between Traditional and NextGen experts, and the value that they bring to your organization individually and together.

Register at this link. I hope to see you there!

For the Next 2 Weeks, Read Retaining Expert Knowledge Online

My publisher, Taylor & Francis, is doing a trial program for people to read books online so you can try before you buy. T&F’s  C&C imprint publishes professional and academic books. As part of this initiative, it is making new books available for a limited time so that potential institutional and corporate buyers are able to see the product before they buy.

Below are ways readers have been able to use the promotional advance glimpse at the book:
❏         Request their library purchase a copy
❏         Consider the book for course adoption or further reading
❏         Cite the book in future publications
❏         Share the link with their own network to widen dissemination
❏         Consider writing a book review on amazon or for a journal

I am happy to be able to offer this opportunity to my email list. Let me know if you use the link so we can ask for similar opportunities again.


Click here to read Retaining Expert Knowledge.


Extrovert or Expert? 5 Ways to Give Quiet Experts a Voice in Your Business

thTWTQH724   Sometimes, this is true. So, how can you help quiet people share their ideas?

Bias is part of the human experience. We are biased in our choices of people, places, things, and thoughts. Often, those biases are just harmless shortcuts to making everyday decisions based on experience or personal preference. In business, those biases can short-circuit logical decision making.

But they don’t have to.

From “Why Our Brains Fall for False Expertise, and How to Stop It,” author Khalil Smith tells us that often it is the tallest, loudest, or the boss’s pet who gets the attention in a meeting and therefore holds the decision-making power. Those biases tend to lead to sub-optimal decisions.

Smith, who heads the diversity and inclusion practice at the NeuroLeadership Institute, wrote last week in Strategy+Business that “biases are human- a function of our brains – and falling for them doesn’t make us malicious. [However,] with the right systems, tools and awareness in place, we can better cultivate the best ideas from the most well-suited minds.”

Here are a few ways to avoid the pitfalls of natural human bias:

  1. Set up “if-then” plans. If the dominant and most charismatic person’s ideas are being adopted in a meeting, then set up some space between the discussion and the decision by adjourning and polling others for their input. Their impressions might reframe the decision.
  2. Get explicit, and get it in writing. Write out the process by which you came to a decision. “We decided X, which led us to conclude Y, which is why we are going with Z.” You can revisit this document later to evaluate what worked and what didn’t.
  3. Incentivize awareness. Encourage employees who detect flaws and celebrate the “mistake of the month.” Error detection helps de-stigmatize a situation and provides learning opportunities that lead to better decisions next time.
  4. Set up buffers. Create a cooling off period between the time you receive information and the time you make a big decision. You might have time for a 10 minute walk or -better yet – for reconvening the next day to discuss issues that may have been overlooked.
  5. Cut the cues. Find a process that removes the person from the idea. When you are brainstorming, have people submit ideas anonymously so the strength of the idea, rather than the status of the person, can be evaluated on its own merit.

Personality may win the day in many cases, and it can be appropriate at those times. Expertise, however, cannot be easily replaced and should not be ignored when you are making the big decisions for your business. With a few simple moves, you can make sure the short and quiet people get their ideas in front of you, too.

To read this strategy+business article in full, click here.

Strategic Planning for Knowledge Management Course for the Working with SMEs Tribe: This is a Test

In our ever-expanding quest to spread the Working with Subject Matter Experts gospel, we test platforms beyond the blog  to get the message out. This week, we created a test course, Strategic Planning for Knowledge Management.

As a writer, I love to write so that is my go-to communication method. But you absorb information in different ways, so we like to play with other formats to help reach you and teach you where you’re at. We enjoy creating the podcasts and will probably keep them going in some fashion after our first season. In the meantime, I am developing a series of online courses and thought I would share a 10-minute sample of an introductory course with you here for your feedback.

Because this is a test, I realize the lighting and framing of the video is poor. That is the fault of me, the user, and my Internet connection. The actual platform and technology is really cool  and if you like the idea, I will refine it and spend some time improving the video on my end.

Content: Is this information helpful?

Audience: Will leaders in your organization find the information useful?

Format: Would this online course suffice in place of live workshops?

Value: Would you like to drill down in this topic of strategic planning for knowledge management and learn more about how to find your experts using this framework?

Platform: How about the platform? Do you like the slides plus video? Would it be helpful to add the text so you can follow along and read it (Of course, we will make formal courses 508 Compliant)? Would slides plus just audio voiceover be better?

We continue to welcome your comments and feedback. Some of you choose to reach out directly to us at and that works for us, too. We read everything and respond.

Thanks for following and sharing this information with others.


Episode 15: The Value of a Chief Learning Officer

In today’s episode of the Working with SMEs podcast, co-host Nathan Eckel and I discuss the expansion of the C-Suite, and in particular the value of adding a Chief Learning Officer to the mix. A CLO integrates and elevates talent development and knowledge management functions into the long-term business plan. A trainer and learning professional at the head table brings a lot to the party when they become experts in the business and the industry.

In a little less than 12 minutes, we talk about the practical and the theoretical aspects of a CLO position. A great C-Suite does not just “think” ahead of the curve because change is no longer linear. Rather, change is exponential so a great CLO helps colleagues “dream” ahead of the curve.

Please comment below. We like hearing from you!

The Working with SMEs 2017 Survey Says…

Survey word cloud 

It’s that time of year where we report the results of the Working with SMEs Annual Survey.

Our respondents are all male and many are near or at retirement age, although none ready to retire, it seems!  Why quit when we are doing something we love?

As for our concerns, readers continue to struggle with developing training that achieves behavioral outcomes. The solution is creating training that reaches today’s learners as Millennials take over as the single largest generation in the workforce. Millennials and Gen 2020 learn in smaller snippets, and they want information all the time at the point of need.

We found that technology, manufacturing and intellectual property dominate, if not our reader population, certainly our respondents. They felt most compelled to speak up in our survey. Respondents confirmed that capturing and transferring proprietary information is an ongoing business need.

As decades of experience leave the workforce, it pays to:

·         capture what you need to retain as soon as possible

·         transfer it using methods that reach your new learners

·         continue to focus knowledge transfer using strategies that create behavior change

Thank you to everyone who participated in our survey. 

Please comment below. We appreciate your readership and involvement in our community.


Here’s what we learned in our Working with SMEs survey this year:


Female – 0%

Male – 100%

(Hello, ladies!)


35-50 – 25%

51-65 – 25%

65+ – 50%


Training and Talent Development – 25%

Executive (C-suite/Management) – 25%

Consultants (business/talent development/marketing/branding) – 50%


Technology – 25%

Professional Services – 25%

Manufacturing – 25%

Marketing, Sales and Public Relations – 25%

Biggest Challenge:

Creating training tools and approaches for Millennials – 25%

Developing training that achieves behavioral outcomes – 50%

Assuring protection of intellectual property, patent – 25%

Episode 12: Planning to Avoid Shelfware

Welcome to the Working with SMEs Podcast with our co-host Nathan Eckel. In this episode, Nathan asks the question, “What could be worse than losing friends on Facebook over your political opinions?” The answer: Shelfware. Want to know more? Then listen here.



Training that is built and doesn’t get used has two major problems:

1. It is a waste of money.

2. Valuable information has been collected but is not disseminated.

When you are proactive in your approach to your training needs analysis -rather than reactive – you can avoid building training that doesn’t get used.

Thank you for listening! We look forward to your comments.

In Favor of a CLO? When Next Gen Learning Needs a View from the Top

This post originally ran May 28, 2016.

When organizations do knowledge management well, it is usually because territorial battles waged. Someone with authority at the top made decisions and roles of responsibility in the training department realigned. That is why it is critical for organizations to have a chief learning officer sitting in the C-suite. Territorial battles need referees who have the big picture and no entrenched interests in preserving an individual fiefdom in the kingdom that is your corporation.

Knowing which knowledge to capture, retain or discard requires trainers to be part of the inner circle of business leaders in an organization. It becomes the role of the training expert to also understand business in general as well as their organizations and industries specifically so they can be at the helm with other executives to assist them in making these decisions. We are beginning to see Chief Learning Officers (CLO) alongside the CEO, CFO, CIO and, in medical organizations, CMO. As we think about successful businesses as learning organizations, it follows logically that the training department is an essential member of the team that determines the direction of the organization.

This critical role at the big kids’ table requires trainers to learn the business of business, as well as the industry in which they work. Without industry knowledge, programs lack context and this contributes to the fact that training programs often wind up as shelfware, never used or cast aside after a brief time. If the instructional designer has little knowledge of the business or industry in which they work, how can their programs have context or relevance to the enterprise? The answer, of course, is that they can’t.

The subject of knowledge management is now as much part of an organization’s success strategy as its sales, R&D and marketing strategies.

Here are 5 steps to guide your organization’s critical knowledge capture requiring a champion in the C-suite

1. Funnel all training and knowledge management through one pathway in the organization that ends at the top

2. Identify the expertise you need to capture by doing a matrix walk-through

3. Create a plan for working with your critical subject matter experts and conduct interviews that result in capturing critical information for your training programs

4. Develop a logical single system for storing and retrieving critical knowledge

5. Establish a review process to assess the ongoing relevancy and accuracy of critical knowledge stored in your organization

The final arbiter of the value of existing knowledge and its relevance going forward must be someone who has the widest possible vantage point in the organization. That person needs to have as few attachments to the way things are done as possible because it is their job to envision the way things need to be. CLOs,  or someone in a similar high-level, above-the-fray capacity, needs to be able to make the tough calls regarding which training is most effective and which consultants are adding value.

Does your training department have a strong voice in the executive suite?

Podcast Episode 6: Succession Planning is More Than Replacing an Individual; It’s About Knowledge Transfer

Welcome to Episode 6 of the Working with SMEs Podcast.  In today’s conversation with co-host Nathan Eckel, we discuss the challenges of succession planning. Succession planning is more than just grooming the right person and getting out of the way, but it’s about making sure new leaders have all the information they need to move forward.

Nathan reminds us, “The first job of a leader is to define reality.”

A great leader must embody qualities like vision and the ability to inspire, but he or she also needs the right information to be able to accurately define reality and make good decisions. A strong learning organization has all that information available and usable.

An organization is a living, breathing organism. Everybody’s contribution makes the organization work, and that is why knowledge capture and transfer is at the heart of success.

As your key people retire, are you capturing what you need to know for business continuity?

(Warning: Peggy tells a joke in this episode.)

Podcast Episode 5: The Importance of Interviewing Experts and Sharing Information

In this episode of the Working with SMEs podcast, Nathan Eckel and I touch on a few issues regarding the importance of interviewing experts in an organized way and the value of information-sharing in a learning organization.

A few things we talk about today include:

  • decide what is important in your organization before you decide who is important in your organization
  • the value of interviewing your employees in an organized way for training purposes
  • why you need to have a culture of sharing information among employees in a learning organization

Thank you for listening to the podcast. Please add your thoughts and comments below.