When I started thinking about the effect of subject matter experts on the training process about two years ago, I wrote a book because I couldn’t find one. The book was based on my own experiences capturing expertise for training programs – and other materials such as white papers, articles and books – for two decades. As soon as I shared my thoughts, people from the training world, the marketing world and experts themselves started to step forward to share their thoughts and questions.
These blogs have mostly been responses to the questions and discussions that are happening as a result of that initial public inquiry. In fact, it appears that the subject of subject matter experts is coming into its own for, I think, several reasons:
- A lot of expertise is leaving the workplace as the last waves of the post-World War II industrial boomers retire, so there is an urgent incentive to capture what they know.
- The technology exists for subject matter expertise to be captured by the SMEs themselves, putting a new slant on what to capture and how to capture it for knowledge transfer within organizations.
- We have a lot more expertise running around the world. The exponential growth of knowledge means you can never know all there is to know about a single subject, and so expertise is becoming more laser focused on very fine niches.
Knowledge on Subject Matter Expertise was Sparse
I recently ran into a colleague who wrote his PhD thesis partially on how to develop expertise among novices on a very critical issue in pharmaceutical product handling. In writing the paper, he researched the nature of expertise and how it is acquired, and he shared some of that with me. What I found most striking is the relative dearth of research into this subject until now.
Some research taught us a few things about expertise. Two of the most striking and important findings for knowledge transfer that are relevant for industry came out of studies in the 1980s and 90s. One study concluded that it takes about 10 years of exposure to a job to become an expert. Another is that an expert is considers about 50,000 “chunks” of information simultaneously when they are thinking about a problem.
Why Subject Matter Expertise is So Important Today
Those findings are important because:
The value of apprenticeships and mentorships in preserving critical organizational knowledge is imperative to transfer important tasks, skills and knowledge in an unbroken line from people who know more than they can ever express, and
Training on your critical processes and procedures can’t start soon enough or be intense enough to be able to get novices up the learning curve as quickly as you’ll need them.
Knowledge capture, apprenticeships, internships and mentorships on your core critical processes and procedures are the lifeblood of your organization. Even, and especially if, you expect that technology and cultural change will cause radical shifts in your business, you need to be capturing critical organizational knowledge before it walks out the door.
Training is like the saying about the best time to plant a tree. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, and the second best time is today.