Subject Matter Experts vs Learning Experts: What’s the Difference?

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We often talk to organizations that are trying to start fresh. They’ve outgrown the tried and true training approaches of yesterday and are ready for something different. They are confronted by a “new normal” in their industry that has changed the game entirely: the regulatory environment has shifted, competition is on the rise and learners must be more skilled than ever before to succeed. Sound familiar?

Meet the Subject Matter Expert

Our clients are usually experts in their field or have easy access to others on their team who are considered expert. For example, training professionals at pharmaceutical and medical device companies often have either A) years of experience in sales or product development, B) an advanced degree in a related field, C) a clinical background or D) access to people within their organization who have these characteristics. They know their products inside and out… but they do not know how to close a specific performance gap that is happening or how to give their learners the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their roles.

These individuals are subject matter experts. They know their content, but they are not experts at teaching this content to others. It might seem counterintuitive, but the expert is not always the best teacher.

Meet the Learning and Performance Experts

To drive success, both a Learning Expert and a Performance Expert are needed. These are often the same individual, or members of a team. They can be part of an internal training department or an external training vendor. Whoever they are, they perform the essential tasks of identifying the performance gap, figuring out how to close it and identifying how to teach the knowledge and skills that are most important in the best way possible.

What is a Performance Expert?

Performance Experts know how to get to the root of a problem. They conduct analysis and gather data through a variety of means (surveys, focus groups, interviews, job shadowing, etc) to get a real picture of the current state of training. They pinpoint the performance issue and are able to see what training can fix… and what is outside of training’s sphere of influence.

Our Performance Experts often go by other names, but our clients will know them as their project manager or the facilitator of their design meeting. It’s no coincidence that our “performance experts” are also often our best “learning experts.” They are the ones who take the big picture of what is needed to fill a performance gap and design a blended learning curriculum approach to close the gap.

What is a Learning Expert?

A learning expert understands how people learn. They are skilled instructional designers and are able to create interaction-rich learning experiences that support a given outcome. In the corporate world, a learning expert should also have an understanding of the business needs of a given learning experience and design it in a way that supports those needs.

Learning experts can gather all of the highly technical content your SMEs have (either documented somewhere or just in their brains) and make it engaging, meaningful and memorable to learners.

At BLP, we call our learning experts Learning Designers. They partner with our multimedia team to design our learning solutions, whether it is an eLearning course, an instructor-led session, a video, a learning game, or a combination of these solutions.

Finding the Right Balance

Many of you are already quite familiar with the need for both subject matter experts and learning and performance experts. Some organizations prefer to work with vendors who also have deep subject matter expertise in their particular industry… while others leverage their own internal SMEs in order to work with a vendor that is expert in adult learning and instructional design. The right balance, of course, depends on the project and particular business need. Our own approach has been to focus on learning and performance first while also building knowledge and skill in the specific industries that we most often work with.

What balance of vendor expertise works best for you? Do you have subject matter experts, learning experts and performance experts on your internal team?