Training the New Workforce: SMEs and Learning Professionals, Unite!

By Tara Denton, Life Cycle Institute

January 1, 2011 seemed ordinary enough. In fact, most people probably do not realize that on this day a cycle was kicked into action that will forever change the face of organizations as we know them. On January 1, 2011, the first Baby Boomers started turning 65. This group, making up the largest percentage of the workforce, is reaching retirement age. This is a scary realization for many organizations whose workforce is stacked with Baby Boomers.

Organizations are now bringing in a new, younger crop of workers to replace the retiring workforce. This turnover has created a demand for knowledge to be captured and institutionalized as training, and shared as organizational learning.

The process of capturing this knowledge and transforming it into a learning product requires ordinary employees with expertise in a specific area (also known as subject matter experts, or SMEs) to work closely with learning and training professionals. While this collaboration can be challenging, it is this cooperation that leads to a better end product.

At the Life Cycle Institute, most of the work I do revolves around crafting and delivering learning solutions. These learning solutions can build your organizational knowledge and be an important tool for tomorrow’s workforce.

I believe some of the positive and challenging moments experienced by working with a subject matter expert (SME) to deliver an effective solution can also be repurposed to be used by any project team and/or partnership. Like the Texas Two-Step, working to deliver the best end product in any discipline is a dance. In this article, I will share my thoughts on a three-step process that can help you “dance” your way through creating a learning product to train the new workforce.

Are you an SME working with a learning professional to deliver a product or service? Or are you a learning professional working with an SME to achieve the same goal? You might be, without even knowing it, if you’re involved in activities like these:

  • Creating training content
  • Writing articles or presentations
  • Coaching other employees
  • Contributing to product design or improvements
  • Designing or improving systems or processes

In each case, the SME has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share that will provide value to your internal or external clients. To explain the three-step process that harnesses SME knowledge and creates a stronger end product, let’s take a closer look at some examples of the challenges and opportunities we face when working together on a project.

Common Challenges
“I don’t know what to do!” – Finding common ground on expectations and roles for the project
“What’s in this for me?” – Motivation (SMEs are many times working on projects in addition to regular responsibilities)
“What does that mean?” – Effective and positive communication

“What can you tell me about…” – Sharing expertise and growing competencies
“How do you see this?” – Additional perspectives and points of view
“What else can we do?” – Opening the door for future innovation

The SME Three-Step can help you navigate the challenges and focus on the opportunities to gain from working together. The SME Three-Step is:

  1. Partnership agreement
  2. Communication with EARS
  3. Celebrate, Congratulate!

Let’s bring the three steps alive by explaining them in the context of a learning project. The following sections detail how the three-step process would ensue if the desired end result of the project were a training course to train the new workforce.

Step 1: Partnership agreement worksheet

I asked some of the best SMEs who I’ve worked with what they felt was important about being an SME on a project. One SME stood out because he was “green” to course design but was a joy to work with, and we produced an excellent product for our client. He responded that he would have been much more confident and responsive at the beginning of the project had he known what being a “course SME was” and knowing “what I’m supposed to do and help you with.” As partners, SMEs and those on the learning side need to understand what we need from each other before we are knee-deep in development.

In an ASTD online seminar, “The Power of Relationship in SME Success,” Kathleen Edwards shared the great idea of creating a letter of understanding between the learning or product designer and the SME that outlines expectations and understandings from each party. This is similar to formal partnership agreements between different organizational functions (for example, between maintenance and production) that would hold each function accountable for what they committed to do in the agreement to support the effort.

A partnership agreement can be as formal or informal as necessary to set expectations that clarify the SME’s and designer’s expectations, roles and responsibilities. To facilitate working on this agreement, I drafted a worksheet inspired by some of the questions Life Cycle consultants use in the field to facilitate plant partnerships:

The questions below will help gain common ground between the SME and learning professional before digging into the project.


  1. What are the specific objectives of this project?   
  2. What makes you want to work on this project? Does any part of the project interest you?   
  3. What do you see as your role in this effort?   
  4. What “resources” are available to support our efforts?   
  5. Will we engage others in this effort? How?   
  6. What are the specific tasks and activities we need to accomplish for success, and when?   
  7. Who will be responsible for planning and executing the efforts discussed?   
  8. How will we know we are successful? Describe what success looks like.   
  9. How does this work contribute to the organization?   

Take another look at questions #2 and #9. In the before-mentioned ASTD webinar, Kathleen Edwards mentioned the importance of knowing the motivation behind each party’s involvement in the project. Is the motivation internal (passion for the project, desire to contribute) or external (compensation, requirement)? Designers can use questions #2 and #9 to determine what the SME sees is “in it for them” in the project. This can help drive the interaction with your partner.

Step 2: Communication with EARS

Well, of course we listen with our ears! Not so fast. In this article, we’re talking about another type of EARS important to learning. In the learning world, Malcolm Knowles’ theory of andragogy is a well-known theory about how adults learn. Knowles published several principles of this theory, four of which resonate most powerfully when creating learning products to train the new workforce. To paraphrase, these principles are:

  • Experience: Adults engage in learning with unique and often extensive prior knowledge that will aid or inhibit learning.
  • Active: Adults who test and apply new knowledge and skills in the learning environment are more likely to change their behavior on the job.
  • Relevant: Adults are ready to learn when they sense a need to cope with real life situations.
  • Self Directed: Adults learn best when they take charge of their learning.

The framework of a partnership agreement worksheet governs the overall project, but how do you approach day-to-day communication? As stated before, many learning designers are comfortable working with Knowles’ principles when designing a course. How about taking the same principles and putting them to a different use to help guide communication between an SME and learning professional? The approach is to slightly alter the perspective of the four principles mentioned above to focus on each partner’s contribution to the project:

  • Experience: Value and draw on the prior experience and knowledge that both the SME and learning professional bring to the table.
  • Active: Work on ways to be proactive in developing deliverables, enthusiastic and communicative about progress so both partners remain engaged in the project.
  • Relevant: Keep the focus on relevancy of the project to the learner, the organization, the SME and the learning professional. Why is this project important for each stakeholder?
  • Self-direction: Encourage initiative and foster autonomy by sharing ideas about how training should be delivered; share authority for making decisions and owning the product; discourage being only a passive, silent partner

By creating positive communication with a purpose aligned to learning principles, the designer and SME are more likely to hold each other accountable for their contributions to the end product, not to mention speed the project due to the absence of conflicts and misunderstandings.

Step 3: Celebrate, Congratulate!

A best practice in learning is to allow learners to express and celebrate the new knowledge or skills they gained through a learning experience. If you are on the learning side, celebrate the formative strides in the project where the SME contributions met or exceeded your hope or request. If you are an SME, acknowledge the hard work the learning professional has put into the project to transform the knowledge into a tangible solution. Publicly thank and congratulate your partner on juggling many other responsibilities to make the project a success. Although the end product is the goal, there are many steps and phases where work can be acknowledged and appreciated.

We constantly hear about the lack of available talent to replace the departing workforce, but there are effective ways of capturing expert knowledge to ensure sustained excellent performance. Our retiring Baby Boomers possess a wealth of knowledge that needs to be captured and transformed into training for the new workforce. The process of building a new learning solution from that knowledge can be a daunting task for both the SME and learning professional.

Having a planned approach to mitigate challenges and build positive communication can dramatically increase chances of project success.

This article introduced a three-step process that can get you started in the right direction. Working with this process and blending in your own experiential ingredients will give you the tools to work together on future projects for the benefit of the future members of your workforce.

Sources: Edwards, Kathleen. “The Power of Relationship in SME Success.” ASTD online seminar: August 17, 2010.

Tara Denton is a Learning Consultant with the Life Cycle Institute. Tara has designed and delivered formal and informal learning events and training material since 2001. Her passion for adult learning principles leads her to build learning products that meet business objectives and practice facilitation techniques that ensure knowledge transfer. Tara’s learning products have been named a finalist in training product competitions; her flexibility allows her to work on a range of projects, from advising a Fortune 500 company on an internal certification program to delivering Web training seminars. You can reach Tara at [email protected].

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