The basic purpose of training is to impart complex knowledge to people who don’t have it. The source of that knowledge is, almost by definition, the Subject Matter Expert, or SME. The job of a training developer is to take information from an SME and create training. The idea that the SME can develop training by virtue of his expertise ignores the skills inherent in training. To understand why this is true, ask yourself why elite athletes in individual sports have personal coaches. If there’s someone who can help Tiger Woods be a better golfer, why isn’t this person out on the tour beating Tiger Woods? And no, it’s not because this person is a retired tour pro like Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. The answer is that being a great golfer and being a great golf coach are two different skill sets. It does not necessarily follow that Tiger Woods, when his golf career is over, will become a golf coach. The same could be said of Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. Maybe they could coach well and maybe they couldn’t. Using knowledge and skill effectively and cultivating them in others are separate talents that don’t necessarily reside in the same person.

Developing and delivering training are specific skill sets. Some of the worst training I have ever encountered is that which is developed and delivered by SMEs. I have developed training for tools sold by other companies because people we sent to get trained on those tools came back more confused than when they left. I have then seen the other company send their employees to us for training on their tools. Needless to say, the companies in question did not employ trainers or training developers.

The biggest difficulty for an SME in developing training is finding the bottom of the ladder. Usually, the SME will start at a level that’s well over the head of the student. It’s difficult to learn economics if you don’t know what money is. It’s difficult to analyze Shakespeare if you can’t read or if you don’t know anything about Elizabethan England. What the SME would consider remedial is usually paramount to the majority of students.

Not only is it important to begin at a low level, it is important to begin slowly and gently, with exercises designed to build confidence by ensuring student success. Challenging exercises can come later to prevent boredom. But an inexperienced trainer lacking confidence as a presenter may seek to build his own confidence at the expense of the student. It is a poor instructor who feels a need to establish credibility in this way, but throw an SME with no training experience before a crowd, and that’s one of the likely outcomes.

On a similar note, I believe it would behoove a training designer to discourage SMEs from creating PowerPoint slides. Most people, including most SMEs, do not create very good PowerPoint slides. Also, as I have noted elsewhere,  since PowerPoint slides are the first thing the students see, they should be created after everything else. The presentation is often only part of the training. The PowerPoint slides are a tool to facilitate the presentation, not the presentation itself.