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Andrew Jackson

Pacific Blue Solutions


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When Subject Matter Expert ‘Rockstars’ Don’t Rock


We've heard quite a bit in recent weeks about our new 'rockstar' Bank of England Governor, Mark Kearney. Well, today, I have a 'rockstar' story of my own to share with you. A story about a subject matter expert who was supposed to be the rockstar of his subject matter world - in this case, systems analysis.

It was 1997. And there was great excitement all round because this great genius was coming to my university to give a guest lecture. (I was studying for a masters degree in systems analysis at the time).

In the world of systems analysis, he was renowned for thinking outside the box, challenging the conventional wisdom and coming up with innovative solutions to sticky problems.

At the appointed hour, we all shuffled into the huge lecture theatre ready for a memorable 90 minutes. 

And it certainly was memorable  - but for all the WRONG reasons. Because after only a couple of minutes, it became painfully clear the 'rockstar' just wasn't going to rock. 

He was quiet. Rambling. Obtuse. After about 10 minutes, I was completely lost. No idea about most of what he was saying. Overall, the 'rockstar' was completely oblivious to the needs of his audience. Completely wrapped up in the complexity of his own little world. 

And this story is an interesting one, because it's an extreme example of some very flawed thinking the pervades the world of learning: that the smartest person in the room must be the best and only person to teach us the subject, or design the course to teach us the subject.

What a big mistake. In most cases, the subject matter expert is almost always the very WORST person to take on either of these roles. 

And if you've ever worked your way through a piece of e-learning designed by an SME, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

Yet in the worlds of both business and academia, the thinking seems to be that your brain simply can't fail to benefit from being exposed to another brain that's much smarter than yours. 

But as my story shows, if the smart brain is so wrapped up in its own complexity and cleverness, nothing much gets communicated. Confusion, boredom and disappointment are usually the only outcomes.

And, by the way, my apologies if you belong to that small minority of SMEs who are also naturally gifted teachers and/or course designers. If that describes you, trust me when I say you are truly a rockstar.

So what about if you belong the the majority? An SME who doesn't possess natural rockstar status? The good news? There is still hope. It's perfectly possible to make your knowledge and skills more accessible and their transfer to others more effective. 

You'll need to learn some new skills yourself. And you'll need to recognise your wealth of knowledge has to be constantly re-worked and re-calibrated for different groups of learners and different delivery mediums, each time you are designing or delivering a new piece of learning. 

You'll also have to learn how to carefully structure and refine your knowledge and skills to make sure what you are designing or delivering actually results in useful, effective learning.

But if you are up for the challenge, there's almost certainly a great piece of learning  or two inside of you, just waiting to get out.

If you are you an SME designing or delivering learning and you feel like you could do with some help and guidance, check out our Essential Step-by-Step Guide to Instructional Design Success.

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Andrew Jackson


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