What do you get when you cross a management scientist with a failed folk singer? The answer: Stanford professor Sam Savage. He's of a rare breed, an academic who was self-aware enough to realize early in his teaching career that only 10 percent of his mba students were "getting" the mathematical concepts he was trying to impart, and just 10 percent of them would apply them.
Dissatisfied with being only 1 percent effective, he honed and refined his presentation skills to include humor, stories and metaphors. Savage now offers his specialist knowledge on applying mathematical models for business decisions to major organizations as a subject matter expert (SME).
Savage is the kind of SME that every organization hopes to find, whether they need someone to contribute content to an instructor-led or technology-based program. He is a highly knowledgeable specialist and understands that the purity of the content must go hand-in-hand with ensuring that the recipients actually learn.
If an organization is lucky enough to find an SME who straddles both perspectives, the instructional design process should be smooth. Chances are, however, that companies will have to marry the expert's intellectual capital with their own focus on the relevance, clarity and appeal of the delivery. Working with an SME needs to be a dynamic relationship, not just a brain dump.
In areas in which information changes constantly—such as tax issues, government legislation or technology—an SME is an ideal contact because only a specialist has the time and interest to keep up with those modifications.
So where do organizations find these experts? And how do they ensure that they are getting someone who not only knows their stuff, but also understands how to apply this to the specific needs of their business and ideally will assist in, rather than detract from, the instructional design process? Well, companies can find smes right in their own business units.
The same general principles for success apply to both internal and external smes—it's just that while the former may save on fees, they might not be so eager to share their knowledge with others. The leveraging and circulation of intellectual capital within organizations is patchy and depends on the corporate culture, says Les McKeown, president and CEO of Deliver The Promise, Tiburon, Calif. As a CPA he has been an SME for 20 years and understands the mentality of both sides. He also offers training on how the SME/training dynamic ideally works.
"Trainers love to communicate whereas smes are defined by the knowledge they have that links to their perceived usefulness to the organization," says McKeown. "I work on employee orientation programs, which is a classic area in which internal SMEs are brought in. Many times I've watched HR folks fail to communicate clearly about compensation and benefits, not because they were poor presenters, but because they saw part of their role as encouraging employees to come to their office to ask about these things."
McKeown urges organizations not only to engender a culture in which information is expected to be freely shared between employees, but also to understand that most internal experts are not natural trainers. They will need a lot of guidance and feedback on what information is relevant, as well as how exercises, work examples and role playing engage an audience to ensure that the information is applied.