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5 Tips for Coaching Subject Matter Experts

By March 31, 2020January 29th, 2021Focus On Training


5 Tips for Coaching Subject Matter Experts

Feature Story – By Susan Armstrong & Giselle Kovary

These five tips help subject matter experts create more effective knowledge transfer and training.

How much time and energy do you spend in your organization on long presentations or Skype for Business calls trying to train employees on new policies, medications, clinical trial results or standard operating procedures – only to have no one learn anything?

How often is there minimal or no change in knowledge or application, which results in the need for retraining, or worse, costly mistakes?

In our ever-changing global environment, the need to share knowledge, change behavior and learn new skills right now means we often resort to virtual training like Zoom, Skype or WebEx. This is not a problem in itself – these are great tools.  The question is, are we using them correctly?

Supporting SMEs

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are highly invested in their content. They deliver great presentations, but they are not trainers. To be successful, they need to acquire some fundamental learning and development (L&D) principles and practices.

There is a difference between a presentation and training, and yet an organization’s “training” initiatives often end up being nothing more than long PowerPoint presentations. This approach not only is costly because it doesn’t deliver the return on investment desired, it also doesn’t engage learners or motivate them to change their behaviors.

Three Challenges

Three key challenges exist in effectively transferring skills versus knowledge.

First, while training theories and methodologies have been around for a long time, in many parts of the world – including Asia, the Middle East and Europe – individuals in L&D roles are struggling to gain access to these powerful processes and often don’t know tools exist to support their work.

Second, promotions bring high-potential employees into the learning function despite the fact that they don’t have a background.

Third, in some areas of the world there are still challenges transferring knowledge online because the technology is not being leveraged effectively to engage learners, and virtual training sessions are still predominantly a one-way dialogue.

Being More Effective

What can we do? Here are five tips to help your subject matter experts create more effective knowledge transfer and training sessions:

  1. Conduct a mini needs assessment. Get to know your participants ahead of time and understand who they are. What is their role? What do they need to know to help them be more successful? Put yourself in the shoes of your audience. This will help you to choose the right method, timing and content for your audience. All subject matter experts can easily fall into the trap of sharing everything they know about a topic. After all, it’s their expertise, their passion and their hard work in the field. But learners don’t care how much SMEs know. They care about how it’s going to help them in their role.  High-impact training needs to include what’s relevant to the audience and leave everything else out.
  2. Recognize the difference between transferring knowledge and transferring learning. Knowing something and being able to apply and demonstrate new knowledge and skills are two entirely different things. When SMEs “tell,” they transfer knowledge; when they “engage,” they create learning. Learning styles and generational differences tell us that to “learn” we need to be involved, to participate, to discuss ideas with each other and share our opinions and to be able to practice and apply the knowledge and gain immediate feedback.
  3. Acknowledge that adults come with their own ideas, opinions and experiences.  dults don’t like to be “told” what to do or “talked at.” Whether you are introducing a new clinical trial or a new medication, it’s not about telling. Your audience needs to be heard, they need to have a say and be able to share their experiences and opinions. This means that using virtual platforms or instructor-led training, we must include time for discussions, questions and application activities.
  4. Appreciate that adults expect information, skills and knowledge to be relevant to their role, to be practical and immediately applicable. When creating your learning session, be sure to include engaging activities, examples and stories that apply the concepts to real-world examples. Create opportunities for learners to connect what they are learning to their role and identify how the knowledge being provided will help them be higher performers.
  5. Be creative and build engaging activities. It is possible to be creative, even when delivering virtual training. Any way you can get learners involved will increase engagement – show a video or demonstration; have them read the clinical trial and highlight what they think are the most important points for their clients; ask learners to highlight areas they don’t understand or are not clear on and ask questions. You can have learners compare an old policy with the new version, find the differences and highlight the benefits of the differences. You can create a game to teach new concepts. You can engage learners to share stories about how the learning could help solve a problem.  The possibilities are endless. The key point is to create activities that allow learners to apply the learning.


Designing and delivering highly engaging learning does take a bit more time and some creativity. However, it is a far better approach than the time and energy involved in delivering a one-way presentation only to have no one implement the new information and skills and then have to re-train over again!

As a profession we have a reputation to uphold. It is critical when training occurs that it be highly effective and deliver business results, otherwise it reflects poorly on our profession. We need a global understanding of how to transfer learning and how to support SMEs to be as successful as possible.

Susan Armstrong and Giselle Kovary are managing partners for Global Training
Transformation. Email Susan at Email Giselle at


About LTEN

The Life Sciences Trainers & Educators Network ( is the only global 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization specializing in meeting the needs of life sciences learning professionals. LTEN shares the knowledge of industry leaders, provides insight into new technologies, offers innovative solutions and communities of practice that grow careers and organizational capabilities. Founded in 1971, LTEN has grown to more than 3,200 individual members who work in pharmaceutical, biotech, medical device and diagnostic companies, and industry partners who support the life sciences training departments.

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