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?

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 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.

Work with Your Experts the DIY Way: Introducing the Working in SMEville Workbook


Several people have asked me to put together a DIY version of Working with SMEs with worksheets and step-by-step checklists, templates and guidelines to show you exactly how to work with your subject matter experts. Done.

Working in SMEville: A Workbook is now available in an 8X10 inch format that you can write in, copy pages, and use in a way that gives you a step-by-step method for getting information from your expert in a linear way.

The workbook is in two sections. The first section is a distilled version of a workshop about the 10 Types of SMEs and how you can work together to overcome specific, common hurdles. The second section is the step-by-step guide with templates and worksheets to help you gather information, verify it and evaluate your work in a systematic way.

Working in SMEville: A Workbook is a quick way to immediately apply the Working with SMEs methodology step-by-step in a DIY way.

We hope this inexpensive workbook helps you through the process of working with your subject matter experts and managing knowledge transfer in a systematic way.

We are interested in your comments and feedback below.


Company Culture Promotes Right-the-First-Time Attitude


Last week, I attended the AGXPE regional meeting where we had info-packed sessions on the process of getting compliance documentation right. It was a pharmaceutical-focused group so we had a lot of discussion around FDA inspections. But, as any industry under regulatory supervision knows, the kinds of best practices and standard operating procedures that guide safety can be found in any manufacturing environment where employee and customer lives are on the line.

Two perspectives emerged from the sessions. First, the group discussed the many issues involved in getting data right the first time. Second, the group wrestled the issue of quality control checks on the back end. In both cases, many of the same attitudes and issues underlie the problems that result in faulty data and information capture that, in the case of pharmaceutical manufacturing, often result in lines shut down, batches thrown away, lots recalled or patients injured.

To get to the heart of the accuracy of initial data entry and quality control, you have to take a close look at what causes human error. Causes are almost as varied as the humans involved.

The AGXPE group had its share of trainers in attendance, and training people know that they are the first stop when a performance issue is uncovered. Training people also know that often the problem can’t be solved with training alone.

A complex human problem, especially this one, cannot be narrowed down to one or two specific issues with a couple of quick and neat little fixes. What really is going on is a complex web of human knowledge, skills and attitudes that come both from the personal background and experience of individual employees combined with the culture of the organization.

This is where the organization can affect the outcome. The one thing organizations can address and control is the culture. A right-the-first-time mentality can be cultivated, encouraged, rewarded and modeled from the top down. In fact, it is the only way that a company can reinforce behaviors that it values.

After employees are imbued with the company culture of responsibility and accountability at the source where information is captured or products manufactured, then training can come in and do their jobs by providing guidance and methods for achieving excellence the first time.

If solving the complex reasons behind human error were simple, the problem would not exist. But if solutions were impossible, near-perfect performance would not already be happening in plants around the world where examples of human excellence abound.


Podcast 2: Capturing the Right Knowledge at the Right Time

Welcome to Episode 2 of the Working with SMEs Podcast. Today, Nathan Eckel and I talk about 4 questions that commonly arise when we talk to corporate executives about managing the knowledge of their internal experts. (Listening time: 16:25)

Listen as Nathan and I drill down into these four questions:

1. Are we talking to the right experts?

2. What knowledge should we capture that is most important to the business going forward?

3. What knowledge needs to be captured immediately as opposed to eventually?

4. If we have limited resources or limited time, which experts should we speak with first?

Are you using your valuable, finite resources to capture the right experts?  Please comment below!

For Trainers and Instructional Designers: Your SME is Valuable During Evaluations

bostonredsoxspringtrainingschedule_2017 This blog is “inside baseball” for those who write training programs.

Recently, I wrote about how the subject matter expert is most involved in the design phase of your training program when you are doing knowledge capture. But an expert can be helpful during all phases of your training program. Experts who are with you every step of the way add more to your program’s depth and richness, and contribute to the learners in ways beyond a mere “information dump”.

As part of your course design, you most likely have included evaluation of the material, perhaps using Kirkpatrick’s 4 Levels or some other validated evaluation process. As you get feedback on your course, make sure your expert is included in getting feedback from the evaluations so he or she knows what is working and where the course is not hitting the target.  The expert can remain a valuable asset as you adjust the course in response to evaluations.

Here are a few ways your expert can participate in the types of evaluation based on The Kirkpatrick Model, with which most instructional designers are familiar.

·         Level 1 Reaction: This measures learner satisfaction and “the degree to which participants find the training favorable, engaging and relevant to their jobs” to quote Kirkpatrick.  Let your expert know if the learners enjoyed the content. This is particularly important if the SME also participated as a live classroom trainer. If they were rated as a trainer, share their scores with them.

·         Level 2 Learning: This measures learner retention and “the degree to which participants acquire the intended knowledge, skills, attitudes, confidence and commitment based on their participation in the training” according to Kirkpatrick. Your expert may be best suited to determine if the learner gained the knowledge that the course set out to teach by reviewing the tests and assessments.

·         Level 3 Behavior: This measures learner application on the job and “the degree to which participants apply what they learned during training when they are back on the job” Kirkpatrick says.  Your expert may be one of the people, in collaboration with their direct supervisors, who can assess if learner performance reflects correct application of the material on the job.

·         Level 4 Results: This measures if business goals are reached and “the degree to which targeted outcomes occur as a result of the training and the support and accountability package” according to Kirkpatrick. Depending on the view of the expert regarding the long-term strategic objectives of the business, the expert may be able to help assess if learner performance is supporting the business and the outcomes desired. If performance is not advancing business goals, some experts have strategic insight into how to adjust the content to support the business. In many cases, however, experts are focused on one particular area of the business and may not see the bigger picture. But it is a good idea to include your expert in this information and get their feedback anyway.

The important takeaway here is that when you employ experts, they are often valuable to your training, information collection and overall business goals in ways that may not be immediately obvious. Therefore, if you are engaging your subject matter expert in your training program, make every attempt to engage them during all phases of knowledge transfer.

Experts more often than not can contribute in ways that even they do not know. It’s your job as a trainer and instructional designer to make sure you are getting the most benefit from their experience.


Respecting Your Learner’s Need to Know and the Value of Just-in-Time Learning


If you have ever been deeply engrossed in a subject, you know that life is constantly presenting you with opportunities to learn more about it.  Everything I do somehow relates back to something I am learning and writing about.  Yesterday, for example, my microcassette recorder wasn’t working. Yes, I still use it occasionally, and in this case I wanted to listen to a tape I made many years ago. I use the microcassette  infrequently enough that when I investigated the cause of the malfunction, I found the batteries had leaked into the battery compartment and the contacts  were corroded.

I “YouTubed” a video on how to properly clean the corrosion. The video was 3 minutes long. The solution was simple.  Dip a cotton swab in clear white vinegar and gently wipe the battery compartment clean, being careful not to get any of the leaked battery acid on your skin, and careful not  to drip any liquid into the device. Wipe the vinegar off the contacts with a paper towel. Soak another cotton swab in water and wipe the inside of the compartment to remove any traces of vinegar. Dry it with another paper towel. Done.

That probably took you about 20 seconds to read that paragraph. But it takes about 3 minutes to watch someone actually perform all those steps in real time.  Three minutes is a long time to watch this process.  After about one minute, I found myself checking the remaining time on the video and figuratively tapping my foot wondering when the heck this video would be over. But I knew if there were two remaining minutes, there must be more to it so I better watch the whole thing or I might miss something crucial.

I learned two things yesterday.

1) I learned how to clean the battery compartment of my microcassette player and

2) I learned just how impatient we have become as learners.

If I –  someone who was educated in the pre-YouTube era, someone who reads 300-page books to learn one critical point  –  if I didn’t have the patience for a 3 minute video, imagine how short the attention span of children who graduated from baby rattles to baby iPads by the time they were one year old.

The Post-9-11 Workforce

Those children born post-9-11 are entering the workforce this year en masse as they turn 17 and graduate from high school. Your employees of today learned to swipe an iPad to get the answer before they could drink juice out of a cup without a lid.

The other day I lunched with a woman who will be retiring within a few years who shared her experience of younger workers.  She works in a medical technical field in a hospital.

I will paraphrase her comment only slightly. “They ask me a question, and they only want to hear a quick answer. They don’t want to know why or how or the context. They just want to get right back to checking Facebook or looking at Instagram.”

I do not want to castigate younger employees. Quite the opposite,  in fact. I am suggesting that perhaps as we consider how all people learn today, what captures and keeps our interest, how we think and what we need to know to do our jobs,  that we respect the effect of our all-info, all-the-time culture on the way we expect to receive information.  After all, I can’t even sit through a 3 minute video without looking at my watch and wondering when the YouTuber will get to the point.

As you craft training programs to communicate with your workforce, ask yourself if you are you considering our cultural bias to learning new information. Is your approach and content relevant and compelling?

As experienced trainers know, if the learner isn’t paying attention perhaps it is time to revisit your methodology.




The Expert’s Curse: You Need Patience and a Plan

Ignorance isn’t always bliss. For experts in any field, whether they have double PhDs  or have been operating a complex machine for 20 years, the curse is the fact that experts, by definition, know more than they can ever re-tell succinctly.

Abraham Maslow is credited with developing the levels of competence that has true experts at the pinnacle of competence. Maslow said experts are unconscious competents who know more than most people will ever be able to learn about their field. Often, experts are unconsciously competent because they love their field; they think about their work even when they aren’t at work. Their knowledge becomes part of their identity usually internally and often externally.

Expertise Challenges Corporate Knowledge Management Efforts

If experts could stay in one position forever, their job never changed, their company’s mission never changed, the market never changed and technology didn’t evolve, expertise would not be a curse. But in reality, some or all of those things are bound to change over time. And that is when it is important to be able to excavate the expert’s knowledge for preservation, modification and transfer. Change presents challenges to corporate knowledge management efforts.

If your experts are so immersed in their own knowledge that they can’t completely reconstruct it, how can your company manage the wealth of corporate intelligence?

First, companies need to get their arms around the body of knowledge, skills and attitudes that make them profitable and valuable to customers. Many companies today who are facing changing conditions – such as mass baby boomer retirements, corporate downsizing, mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, competition from nimble startups – are putting plans in place to make sure they preserve critical information.

When preserving critical information, most companies start by working with their internal experts to ensure business continuity. And that is when they encounter “The Expert’s Curse”.

Patience and a Plan

Many companies are finding themselves stuck at the intersection where they have made the decision to catalogue critical corporate knowledge and the place where they decide how to collect it. They need to make decisions about how best to collect it based on what technology and skills sets they must employ to gather information in a logical framework and how best to organize it for effective transfer while overcoming the expert’s resistance to describing their knowledge.

Often the expert’s resistance is simply the result of too much work to do. But many times that resistance is accompanied by a true frustration about how to begin to deliver a stepwise description of their expertise whether it is intellectual capital, processes, procedures or physical actions. How do  you impart what is often a lifetime of study and application – the subtleties, hints, tricks and clues- that lead an expert to make decisions that those with less experience are not as equipped to make?

You can never replace an expert. But you can isolate the unique knowledge they bring to your organization and lead them to re-tell it in a way that allows it to be captured and preserved. You can help your experts overcome their brilliant blessing disguised as a curse. It just takes patience and a plan.