Subject matter experts – time for a re-brand?

by Viv Cole on November 15, 2018

The last 20 years has seen the evolution of terminology from Computer-Based Learning to e-learning to digital learning (and beyond). One term that has been static is SME (subject matter expert). Given how much the world and technology has changed in that time, is it time for a re-think? One Big Four firm has already started dropping SME as a term for internal L&D projects.

Personally, I’m grateful to have worked with many brilliant experts and valued learning from them the ‘tricks of many trades’ to co-create learning experiences. On the occasions when SMEs have been harder to engage with, I wonder if it’s partly because the term ‘SME’ evokes unhelpful preconceptions? Would changing the name remove some of those preconceptions and accelerate progress by avoiding the need for those assumptions to be surfaced and influenced?

How did we get here?

The term SME was commonplace in software development. Reasons why L&D adopted it probably include:

  1. SMEs are usually volunteers
    As designers of learning you need subject matter content. The kind of person who is an SME is usually senior and time-poor. Providing learning designers with the inputs they need is not their primary job. If you can’t pay for someone’s time, you can at least make them look good – “expert” sounds suitably flattering and career-enhancing.
  2. Accountability
    Having one person who is accountable for a process or a subject domain is clearer and tidier than accountability being dispersed. It feels natural that the person who knows most about it (the expert) should be in charge.
  3. Defensibility
    External compliance probably represents the majority of e-learning ever commissioned. If using e-learning to meet a legal or regulatory need, an organisation needs someone to take responsibility for the messages communicated. Calling that person an “expert” builds credibility with regulators, giving more reassurance that someone is accountable for ensuring compliance throughout the organisation.
  4. Ease
    It saved having to come up with a new name!

The case for change

Coming back to the preconceptions mentioned earlier, the use of the term SME has several unintended consequences:

  1. The ‘curse of the expert’
    The ‘curse’ refers to the tendency that the more expert you are, the harder it is to imagine where a non-expert is coming from. The internet has democratised knowledge and information to the extent that it is almost a given. Key value that the best SMEs add is how to apply that information and put it into a real-life context that learners can relate to (which to most people is not implicit in the term SME).
  2. Lack of learner voice
    “Expert” implies someone who knows everything worth knowing. This inhibits learning designers from engaging enough with end users to identify what they really need and what would make a difference for them.
  3. Setting the right tone of working relationship
    In terms of transactional analysis, “expert” encourages learning designers into a child to parent relationship, i.e. “I’ll do my homework and you correct it”. The adult to adult relationship that would create better learning experiences is one of partnership and co-creation – I bring my design knowhow, you bring your content knowhow, we’ll consult with learners and together we’ll create something engaging and memorable.
  4. Making expert time commitment more transparent
    If expert time is being provided “as a favour”, learning designers are under pressure to use as little expert time as possible, especially where the opportunity cost of expert time is high. This can pressurise learning designers towards not understanding the subject matter enough and using a “paint by numbers” approach to converting PowerPoint into e-learning (a far greater waste of money and learners’ time).

What next?

If we’re not going to call experts “SMEs”, here are a few suggestions to pick and choose from (or build upon): content/domain/subject matter – champion/partner/resource. What term would you like to see used instead?

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