Subject Matter Experts as Trainers: Aren’t They All The SaME? ©

Are you in a love-hate relationship with your SMEs (Subject Matter Experts,)? Maybe it's because they're not the right ones for the job.

The biggest mistake most folks make when adding SMEs to their instructor force is thinking SMEs are all the same.  They're all technically competent so don't they ALL have the ability to perform as trainers?  Can’t just anyone train?

C'mon - remember what you do for a living?   Along with the SKILL to do the job has to come the WILL to want to do the job. 

What is a Subject Matter Expert?

Employees with subject matter expertise are often good candidates to become internal trainers because they are well-regarded by their peers and have a strong foundation of practical knowledge and skills used daily on the job. Using a SME expert as an internal trainer is a cost effective use of an employee’s time. When subject matter specialists acquire training skills, they can be very effective in increasing the skills of other employees. To be successful in the role of subject matter expert as trainer, they must be available for a training assignment and willing to spend part of their time planning and conducting training sessions. 

What to Look for in a Subject Matter Expert

The first place to start when planning to add SMEs to your training force is to develop selection criteria. Yep - Basic Selection 101!

After considering the general selection criteria used for any trainer, take some time to rate your SMEs individually on the following skills* using this scale:

0 = Not at all/hasn’t a clue!

1 = Squeaks by at the bare minimum

2 = Hallelujah! Snag ’em!

The subject matter expert has¹ :

___ Time available for a training assignment?

___ Willingness to take on training assignments?

___ Proficiency in the subject matter?

___ “Ambassador” skills: has spoken in positive terms about the training to others, encouraged others to try/use the skills, has had success with the skills and shared with others, etc.

___ Experience in conducting classroom training or in giving presentations?

___ Experience in coaching or mentoring others either formally or informally.

___ Experience conducting one-on-one training or on-the-job training.

___ Good verbal communication skills.

___ Good written communication skills.

___ Facilitated team meetings or has been a team leader.


What Does This Mean? 

What does this all mean? A perfect score is 20. Although a candidate who has less than 12 points would have minimal skills in some important requirements, this SME may not be the best candidate to train others in your organization. Also the SME who does not have time or is unwilling to take on a training assignment may not be a good internal trainer.

Taking the time to think about these criteria when selecting SMEs will not only enable you to pick more qualified candidates for your training efforts but will show the organization that you can’t just pick-out someone and drop them into a training role. It also provides a great starting point to identify subject matter expert roles/responsibilities and potential needs for the development of training skills.

Working with subject matter experts adds so much to our training efforts. But we – and our SMEs - don’t come out of the womb doing this stuff! It’s taken years of practice and honing our craft to get our own facilitation skills where we need them to be. So let’s give ourselves a little bit of credit and earn the respect we deserve in the organization by selecting credible SME partners in training.

“Anyone can train!”…. I don’t THINK so.

Maria Chilcote & Melissa Smith

The Training Clinic


¹ Used with permission from “Managing the Training Function for Bottom-Line Results” by Training Clinic founder, Jean Barbazette, published by Pfeiffer Wiley, 2006, San Francisco, CA