The Unconscious Competence of Subject Matter Experts – SMEs

 Click on the cartoon strip for a larger view.

We’ve all probably pulled into the driveway or our parking spot – and were amazed that we had arrived.

We thought – I don’t recall going through that intersection – or stopping at any of the stop signs and/or traffic lights.


We were on auto-pilot. Not always a comforting thought.

When we interview SMEs – Subject Matter Experts – we need to appreciate that they too perform on auto-pilot. Always.

And that when we ask them what they do and how they do it – they cannot tell us. Even if they wanted to, according to Richard E. Clark, EdD of USC’s (that’s U of Southern California for my South Carolina friends) Center for Cognitive Technologies.

See the 41 minute video:

I myself prefer to bring in a group of Master Performers when doing analysis and I facilitate them in a structured process to define Performance Competence. That approach was first written up by myself and business partners/co-workers in Training Magazine in September 1984 (see it here) on an article on Curriculum Architecture – using a Group Process. I’ve seen them – Master Performers – correct each other – to the point to where we have to help them see those clarifications sought by others and the corrections suggested less as challenges (Master Performers have big egos and dislike being corrected – by anyone – even other Master Performers) than as augmentations of the original statements. It is tricky – at times – and takes a skilled facilitator. Otherwise all-hades can break out.

Newer approaches, such as what Dr. Clark referred to as Cognitive Task Analysis – CTA – need to be used – and I recall hearing him state once that there were hundreds of CTA approaches.

Whatever your approach – be careful – in what you believe from what you hear or read – from your SME. And be careful in what you use in your content development. It could be missing 70% of what a novice needs to actually perform.

That’s what is also scary about SMEs creating content using the easy to use authoring systems available today. As Dr. Clark says, they couldn’t tell you if they wanted to. Which you heard if you watched the video clip.

Analysis is not as easy as it might seem to be – to some. And necessary as Joe Harless taught many of us.

Which is why alpha, beta and and Pilot-Testing – or whatever you chose to call them – are also so critical a component of your version of ADDIE (rapid or otherwise) – as Bob Mager taught many of us back in the day.

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2 comments on “The Unconscious Competence of Subject Matter Experts – SMEs

  1. Pingback: On the Web Today: Web Site Makes It Easy to Create a Training Program — and to Charge for It « EPPIC – Pursuing Performance

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