This post is cross-posted on the ATD Learning & Development Blog. It’s also the first in a series on coaching and working with subject-matter experts.

Sometimes, it seems like “SME” is a four-letter word.

Love ’em or hate ’em, though, you need your subject-matter experts. Whether they’re just content providers or also lead learning opportunities, working with SMEs can be challenging. Your priorities aren’t theirs. Missed deadlines, inadequate facilitation skills, and “interesting” ideas about what effective learning looks like are common. Even if some are dedicated and know what they’re doing, the result is inconsistency for learners. Sound familiar?

Learning opportunities are at their best when a solid, productive partnership exists between learning professionals and subject-matter experts. Learning expertise plus content expertise, focused on what is best for learners, is a powerful combination.

The key that opens everything up is having a quality relationship. A great relationship built on trust and mutual respect allows you and your SMEs to focus less time and effort battling each other and more on meeting learner needs. And it all starts with you. Continue reading →


One of my favorite things about the work I do is the new experiences I get to enjoy – and especially the new things I learn from them!

I once spent 10 days in Asia working with a corporate client. The first half of the trip was my second delightful visit to Singapore; I was there the previous year for this same client. The second half was a little more adventurous: my first trip to Tokyo, Japan and to a country where English is not the predominant language.

My workshop in Tokyo

My client, based in Singapore, worked with a multi-country network of people who train her company’s sales consultants on how to sell and use its highly technical products. In both Singapore and Tokyo, I led a two-day workshop that focused on transforming those subject-matter experts (SMEs) into “facilitators of learning.” That is, participants would learn how to design and lead programs that actively engage learners and enhance their abilities to apply what they’ve learned.

Some things I learned (or confirmed) along the way….

• Leading learning in a country other than your own adds another, potentially significant, layer to preparation and planning.

Knowing your audience is a key tenet of adult learning; in another country, you also have to become familiar with that audience’s culture. Knowing what to do – and what not to do – can help avoid potential gaffes and demonstrate thoughtfulness and consideration to your hosts. And it helps you determine what changes you may have to make to the program to suit learning approaches to the audience.

Be careful about relying only on the Internet or “book learning.” Cultivate local relationships; at the very least, talk to others who have worked in the target country to get a better sense of what to expect. Don’t expect to just transplant your professional development opportunities to another culture “as is.” At the same time, don’t assume things will have to be significantly different, because… Continue reading →


I’ve been reading a lot about the shake-up going on in learning, learning effectiveness (or lack of it), and how everyone wants to see learning events like conferences and webinars transformed. And for some time, I’ve been seeing variations of this somewhat-plaintive question: how do we get our conference speakers to stop lecturing and start engaging?

I’d really love to invent a magic wand that with a single touch would transform subject-matter experts (SMEs) into the ideal “facilitator of learning” role we all want them to have. I’d make a fortune selling it to associations and corporations that want their conference sessions and other learning opportunities transformed from, as I said in my TED-style talk a few years ago in the Learning Lounge at PCMA’s Convening Leaders event, “ho-hum” to “oh, wow.” Speakers would lead amazing sessions, participants would always get what they need, and conference organizers would be very happy indeed. Sadly, we don’t yet have that magic-wand-building technology.

Discovering SMEs. A big part of the work I do now and have done over the past couple of dozen years centers on helping SMEs move towards that coveted “facilitator of learning” role. In working with hundreds of SMEs across dozens of professions and industries in both not-for-profit and for-profit organizations, I’ve learned a few things about what makes them “tick,” what motivates them, what concerns them, and what it takes to transform them into facilitators of learning. It’s not magic, although the results can be magical.

SMEs all have one thing in common. Of course, it’s that they know their content (to sometimes varying degrees). At least, they know that content in relation to the work they do. They are typically very good at that work, which is why they are invited to speak to others about what they do and how they do it…about their successes and lessons learned. People want to hear success and failure stories in hopes of either emulating or avoiding what the speaker has experienced. Hearing the voices of others who have trod your road before you can be very powerful.

The thing is, just hearing about such experiences doesn’t mean you are learning.

Learning is a partnership. Effective learning is collaborative. It’s engagement. It’s the sharing of knowledge and seeking meaning and application that makes sense for the learners’ situations. It can and does happen organically, yet a “guide on the side” can offer value learners alone may not achieve. There will always be a role for subject-matter experts in effective learning…that role is clearly changing, though, as the world becomes more connected. Continue reading →