Why You Need Multiple Subject Matter Experts

Why You Need Multiple Subject Matter Experts
Summary: We often look for a single Subject Matter Expert to provide all the inputs that we need for a learning project. But that may not always be possible or practical. In this article, we talk about the importance of, and the practical considerations for, having multiple Subject Matter Experts on our project.

You Don’t Need A Subject Matter Expert, You Need Multiple Subject Matter Experts!

Finding the right Subject Matter Expert (SME) can make all the difference between a successful learning project and a not-so-successful one. So, with the best interests of the project in mind, we set about looking for an expert on the topic, someone who has spent years working on and honing their craft. The positive deviant who has found nothing but success in their job. The person who can give us the big picture as well as the juiciest of details, all in one go. While such a Subject Matter Expert can add incredible value to the project, they might not be in a position to provide the perspective that a novice learner needs to hear. They are so steeped in their subject that it’s easy for them to not understand why someone would struggle to do something. Which is why you need multiple Subject Matter Experts: That is another, not so experienced, Subject Matter Expert as well. (Subject Matter Non-expert??? That doesn’t sound too good, so let’s stick with non-expert Subject Matter Expert for now.) This person can provide you with the details of where newbies might fall short, and the areas that they’re likely to find difficult to grasp.

So, let’s look at the kinds of inputs that we typically need from a Subject Matter Expert:

  1. Concepts and models to help explain the concepts in the simplest manner possible.
  2. Situations that learners might find themselves in.
  3. The best possible action(s) to take in such situations.
  4. The incorrect action(s) that learners are likely to take in those situations.
  5. The questions, concerns, myths, and misconceptions that learners are likely to have.
  6. Examples of how others handled such situations (correctly and incorrectly).

While the experienced Subject Matter Expert can typically help with points 1, 2 and 3 above, you need the help of a non-expert Subject Matter Expert to help with points 4 and 5. In fact, you can have more than one non-expert Subject Matter Expert providing these inputs. And, you will need the experienced Subject Matter Expert as well as the non-expert Subject Matter Expert(s) to provide inputs for point 6. Let me explain.

Benefits And Pitfalls Of Having Multiple Subject Matter Experts (And How To Avoid Them) 

Besides well-designed practice, one of the best ways to get learners to really understand the nuances of a topic are worked-out examples. They take learners step-by-step through the process of addressing a problem, explaining the how-to of, as well as the thinking behind, each step. However, worked-out examples for really complex tasks can be daunting for learners who are just starting out in the subject, and they might get overwhelmed. Here again, the non-expert Subject Matter Expert(s) can come in handy, in a couple of ways:

  1. The task that the example demonstrates itself can be fairly simple, one that learners can easily relate to. As they gain comfort with such simple tasks, they can gradually progress to more complex ones.
  2. The non-expert Subject Matter Experts can add in some tiny tidbits of information that the expert may not consider, or may tend to dismiss as being too basic.

This can help learners gain not just skill and expertise, but also the confidence needed for them to get started. It can also help when one or more of the Subject Matter Experts are busy (which tends to happen very often). When you have multiple people on your team, it’s easier to split the responsibilities.

Having said that, here are a few pitfalls to keep in mind while choosing multiple Subject Matter Experts for a project:

  1. Subject Matter Experts tend to be passionate about their subject, and therefore can get very territorial.
  2. They might contradict each other, getting on each other’s toes in the process.
  3. With multiple Subject Matter Experts, the project can quickly get complex and out of hand.

To address the above, we can:

  1. Set clear expectations right at the beginning of a project, about both inputs (who will provide what) and the review process.
  2. Even when there are contradictions, you can address them by being clear, in your mind, of who will provide what. For instance, consider that all factual and conceptual material will be provided by the experienced Subject Matter Expert, while the non-expert Subject Matter Experts can fill in with all perceptive details.
  3. Appoint one of them, the experienced one, as the lead Subject Matter Expert for the project. This can address the issue of contradictions, and soothe ruffled feathers as well.

So, what do you think? What other ways can we:

  • Get the most out of Subject Matter Experts?
  • Handle multiple Subject Matter Experts on a project?

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