Why SME’s fail as Teachers

smeRecently I was reading a book on complex psychology in which the author thanked his co-author for enabling him to articulate his knowledge and share his practices so others could learn and implement them.  He noted the ability to impart this in a book was something he had failed to achieve on his own, despite trying several different approaches, over a ten year period.  Although the acknowledged subject matter expert the field, he lacked the particular skill to impart his learnings and benefit a wider society.  It was only in collaboration with a writing partner he was able to impart his wisdom.

Individuals, team members and employers generally have the belief that the best person to teach other people something is the subject matter expert (SME).  This is the person who has the most experience in practicing what others need to learn.

Many people will have experienced the falsity of this simple, and seemingly sound, belief.  In the workplace it is common for the SME to be charged with educating the rest of the team, only to either have no training materialise, or what is provided leaves people in a state of confusion.  As one person expressed to me, “I came to this organisation with some TRIM knowledge, but after I’d been given the compulsory training by the Records Manager I felt I knew less than when I started!”

There is a simple reason for this; and understanding this will help you determine the best approach to knowledge sharing and developing training resources for your team.

There are two different types of knowledge we possess: declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge.[i]

  1. Declarative knowledge allows us to name, explain and talk about matters.
  2. Procedural knowledge enables us to act and do things, to perform tasks.

Let’s relate this to riding a bicycle.  Most people learn to ride a bike before the age of ten.  The act of riding a bike; balancing, pedalling and steering, rapidly becomes instinctive.  Once we’ve mastered it, we don’t even think about how we do it.  It is stored in our brains, and even in our skeletal and muscular system, as procedural knowledge.  We are SME’s of bike riding.

When it comes to teaching someone else to ride a bike the majority of people find it difficult to describe what to do.  What is the position the pedals need to be in?  How do you find the right balance?  To instruct someone else we need to be able to express our procedural knowledge as declarative knowledge.  Even as an SME of bike riding it can be impossible to instruct someone else because our brain cannot convert the knowledge.  We may need to find an instructor who can (hence why we have driving instructors).

This is why we experience the situation, and the frustration, where the guru who can solve all the problems in the work place cannot actually teach anyone else to become a guru.  They lack the ability to articulate their procedural knowledge as declarative knowledge.

In order to access the knowledge of your resident SME you may need to partner them with a team member or a consultant who is skilled in translating procedural knowledge into declarative knowledge.  You will save yourself, and everyone else, a great deal of time, frustration and lack of result by identifying knowledge sharing strength from the outset and taking a team approach as required.

You’ll be on the right track at this point to creating good training and knowledge sharing resources.  Remember also to consider:

  • Different formats for different audiences; verbal, written, graphics, etc.
  • The balance of conceptual knowledge and business rules to include in technical training
  • The prior knowledge of your audience and how to manage the variation that will exist.


[i] Telling Ain’t Training, by Harold D Stolovich and Erica J. Keeps, ASTD Press, 2011

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