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Bonus Focus - Organizational Survival: 10 Tips for Working with Subject Matter Experts


By Peggy Salvatore, MBA

Inside each organization resides all the knowledge needed to run it well and profitably.

The expertise inside each organization is the foundation of the business. The product knowledge, the R&D capability, the customer service structure, the manufacturing ability and logistical support are the individual building blocks that make up the foundation of expertise upon which your biopharma is built.  It is what makes your company unique and special. That expertise is not easily replaced.

We are reminded of this, sadly, by the downing of the Malaysian airliner recently where we lost nearly 100 AIDS researchers and advocates.  This incident begs the question, what have you done to prepare for the loss of your critical internal human assets?

In order to thrive, your business needs to have the “lottery ticket” contingency covered.  It is important to know the people within your organization who, if they won the lottery and retired to Hawaii tomorrow, would leave a serious and gaping hole in your company’s ability to develop, produce and deliver products to your customers. Those are the subject matter experts who can offer something to your internal training programs that very few other people can provide.

You need to know who they are and begin to work with them today because they are critical to your corporate survival.


Defining Your Critical Training Programs

First, as trainers, we would not develop or allocate finite budget resources to a training program that we do not think is important. So, let’s start by agreeing that if we are doing it, the training is important to maximize the profitability of our enterprise. However, for our purposes here, let’s divide training programs into three categories:


1.       Non-essential

2.       Essential

3.       Critical


Non-essential training programs are those that develop people in a way that improves their performance. Without those programs, your business can continue to survive. It may not be as successful or profitable, your products and customer service may not be as flawless as they could be, but you have a sufficient product and viable customer service without them. Often, these training programs can be provided by any competent supplier that specializes in such areas as soft skills and management optimization.

Essential training programs are those that are required to do business. These training programs include things like software training that may be company-specific. Other examples of essential training include compliance training so your employees can operate within the laws and regulations issued by the FDA or OSHA, for example.  These training programs are necessary and not optional, but can usually be provided by an outside provider with a little customization for your company.

Critical training programs are those that are specific and essential to your particular organization. These training programs impart the knowledge that is key to a particular company’s survival. Critical training programs teach your employees your secret sauce, whether it is how you manufacture your pills or how much ketchup goes into your Funburger. The secret to your individual business’s survival is finding the people who have this information and downloading what they know into your company’s knowledge base before they win the lottery. Sometimes these people are not just people with scientific knowledge, but they may very well be the people who drive the spirit of innovation or the ones who know how to work successfully to cooperate with customers and advocates that makes your company a star. Whoever they are, whatever they are doing, when you find the people who make your company’s individual difference to your customers, the people who understand the value your organization brings to your customers, those are the subject matter experts you need to be talking to.


Working with your SME

Once you’ve found the subject matter experts who can provide the critical information that your organization needs to survive, you need a plan to work effectively and efficiently with them to capture it. Because your subject matter expert is critical to your organization, that person is also very busy.

So, it helps to have some tools in your trainer’s tool belt to get the most out of the limited time you have to work with them.

When working with your SME, you need to manage your time and schedule to keep your meetings with them targeted and productive. If you don’t have a project manager, you need to be one.  Here are 10 simple steps for managing your relationship with your SME.


10 Tips for working with SMEs:


1.       Agree to clear learning objectives for your training program and make sure your information gathering leads to the answers to them. Stay focused.

2.       Decide on a deadline for finishing the content and track progress.

a.       Write a schedule with milestones for interviews and content reviews.

b.      Confirm dates and, if they have an administrative assistant who tracks their schedule, get to know that person and confirm dates with them as you progress.

3.       Set aside a defined amount of time for information gathering, ideally no more than 2 hour sessions. Try to get their undivided attention. Turn off phones and get away from email, if possible.

4.       During content gathering sessions, have an agenda with pre-defined questions and stick to it.

5.       Especially if the content is technical or difficult for you, record your conversations, live and virtual. Get the SME’s permission.

6.       When you don’t understand something, ask for resources.  Collect as much information as possible in written form. They may already have produced papers, procedures, or slide presentations on the topic that will save you both a lot of time.

7.       Do your homework. Look up terminology and concepts that aren’t familiar to you.

8.       Create a glossary for your training program using all the terms and acronyms you have learned. If you need an explanation, so will your learners.

9.       Have an easy-to-use system for version control of your documents that will be passing between you that includes a date in the filename.

10.   To avoid errors, have a signoff document that tracks their approval of the content.


Peggy Salvatore, MBA is a trainer and instructional designer who specializes in managed markets and can be found at  She has just published an ebook, Working with SMEs: An Instructional Designer’s Guide to Gathering and Organizing Content from Subject Matter Experts, with co-author Jonena Relth of TBD Consulting.


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