Tacit Knowledge SME Subject Matter Experts

Star performers, master salesmen — really any kind of subject-matter expert (SME) — know what they know based on years of experience. They’ve seen many situations, solved many problems. From a training perspective, the value these experts bring is their developed understanding — not only of what they do, but, more importantly, why they do what they do.

When working with subject-matter experts, these areas of “tacit” knowledge are often the most difficult to mine. By definition, tacit knowledge is more challenging to explain because it can’t be explicitly stated and written down like a fact. Yet these gems can make the difference between a learning experience that simply imparts information and one that inspires improvement, growth, and change by providing the deeper context.

A recent experience, outside of my day-to-day working with SMEs in corporate settings, made me pause to consider the challenge of unearthing tacit knowledge. My husband, Mark, is a math teacher, and he tutors students for the AP Calculus exam. Part of the AP exam is free response: students must solve problems to demonstrate their knowledge of the subject. As Mark has learned, there are many AP prep books and programs out there that teach the what — both of calculus and AP test tactics — but there is a dearth of available guidance that gets to the why — how to think about calculus problems.

Mark’s goal is to help students analyze a problem, not answer a question. So, he set himself to a task: he worked every AP Calculus free-response problem in the last 10 years… not to understand the what — he already knows the what — but to help him get to the underlying why. Doing this has allowed him to extrapolate back to the set of guiding principles that appear in the AP exams, and he’s categorized each problem (and problem subpart) by principle type.

From this, he’s developing side-by-side solutions for each AP free-response problem:

  • Down the left side of the page, he provides his thought process — the why — by explicitly writing down how he thinks about solving the problem using one or more of the guiding principles.
  • Down the right side of the page, he provides the what — the solution steps that he would show on the AP exam itself, with whatever time-saving tactics the AP exam allows for.

Now, getting a SME to commit to this kind of effort probably isn’t realistic for most corporate training efforts. But you can use the same approach in interviewing SMEs. Here’s how:

  • Ask the SME to provide several examples of common issues. You’re not looking for the black-and-white situations; you’re looking for the ones that are shades of grey, where the SME had to apply judgment. Ideally, you want three or four examples per topic.
  • Let the SME explain what he or she did, and probe for the why. Why did you choose to do that as opposed to something else? What in your experience told you that was the correct approach? What factors did you consider? Which are the most important? Least important? If X changed, how would that change your thinking?

Ultimately, what you’re trying to get to are those guiding principles that the SME is using to make a decision based on a given set of circumstances.

I’ll be honest: it’s not easy. Most tacit knowledge is so ingrained that SMEs don’t even realize what they know. But if you can dig for these diamonds, it will make your training sparkle.

(2) Comments

  1. Cindy McCabe

    I love this idea, thanks for sharing. Are you or your husband aware of the Herrmann Brain Dominance Index (HBDI)? In addition to reinforcing core concepts of HBDI the approach you described also provide the context vital to memory storage and recall for application.