Activating the Subject Matter Expert

On Saturday night, I saw Crowded House perform. This event provided an epiphany that I will attempt to relate in my normal, long-winded and winding manner.

As a former music major and the writer of many many cheesy love songs back when I lazily pursued musical ambitions, I appreciated many torch singers. I knew a handful of Crowded House songs and I like those songs. I’d tape them off the radio or off of other friends who had them on CD when I’d make mixtapes. I just never liked them so much that I had to own their CDs until I worked at a used-CD store. Then I had so many CD’s that, like my penchant for buying books, the CDs just sat in my shelf until the advent of iTunes allowed me to rip them, store the albums electronically and sell of the CDs. As a very early owner of the iPod, I’ve now gone through several iPods, each with far less capacity than my music library. In fact, it is to the point that even though I create new playlists on a weekly basis (the modern day mix tape), I can’t dig into my library fast enough or far enough, and now I just fill my iPod up completely at random just to discover what I have in my library.

Now that’s already a paradigm shift over how most people approach their music library, but it continues further down the rabbit hole. I’ve been taking this approach — just randomly filling up my iPod to listen through my library, metal or classical or outlaw country or throat chants from Nepal — for years now. And it’s through this shuffling that I’ve now heard pretty much every Crowded House song recorded and discovered that I’m a HUGE Crowded House fan. Despite never really being aware of my exposure to them when they were regulars on the airwaves, I look through my catalog of torch songs and they sound like imitations (at worst) or allusions (at best) to Neil Finn’s work, both solo and collectively in his bands Split Enz, Crowded House and the Finn Brothers. This epiphany combined with a deep and abiding love of music drove me to network through friends of friends to find someone willing to go with me (my wife is six weeks from delivering our second child, so standing for three hours at a show is just not high on her preferences — also, she’s much more into metal as far as shows go).

I found a friend of a friend who was game, even though he was just a passive fan of the one or two songs he knew. It mattered not, I just needed to share the experience with someone, as well as enjoy a couple pints of Guinness before the show. It was a fantastic show, and Crowded House introduced several new songs — my favorite new song, “Turn it Around” is below:

After my 2am burrito following the show, I was still pretty awake ruminating on the performance I just saw. I thought a lot about this song and how much I really liked it. I spent a little time on Sunday night (after catching up on Battlestar Galactica) seeing if the set list from Saturday’s show was posted by a fan so I could, at least, figure out the name of the song. By Sunday night, I had not seen a set list from my show… but there were a number of setlists already posted up in various fan forums. This is a practice that goes back to fans of the Grateful Dead, Phish, Black Crowes and Pearl Jam: dedicated fans who chronicle every show and bootleg available. From this I was able to get the name of my song, and then I proceeded to search again for “Crowded House Turn It Around” and TWO YouTube videos came up immediately from different fans at different shows.

It immediately hit me that I should’ve brought my new Flip camera instead of chickening out, but I’m still in a mindset that cameras are going to be taken away at shows, like an unfortunate experience I witnessed years ago at a Phil Collins show. Since then, unless it’s expressly stated that cameras are allowed, I leave them at home.

This thought immediately turned me on my head with regards to how we distribute official knowledge. Let me try and work backwards. See, even three years ago, there wasn’t a YouTube (at least, not a popular one). There weren’t compact video capturing devices that people could afford easily (like around $100). There wasn’t a culture that made it de-facto “permissable” to record concerts even with amateur equipment. If you were brave and cunning enough to sneak in your equipment, there wasn’t a way to easily share it with anyone beyond your immediate friends, unless you were also resourceful enough technically to run your own FTP server, and even if you were using BitTorrent or some kind of Gnutella-based file sharing protocol, people would have to be stumbling onto it — it’s not like you would be able to easily Google it. But now you can. Now, it’s expected that after I go to a show, there are perhaps multiple ways of getting a recording of that show, even if it’s not me who’s doing the recording and posting.

There’s a lesson to be learned with how we approach Subject Matter Expertise. It’s been said on a few forums that the biggest time delay in getting Rapid Learning out to learners is in the Subject Matter Expert reviews. In the current (and arguably antiquated) model, this assumes that SMEs can’t create the content themselves — that producing instructional material is a job for ISDs or content developers — some other “title” or person than the SME themselves.

Well, what if the learners capture the content live and share it, doing the work of producing and tagging material they find interesting? That’s an idea. The rub is that much of the content we’d expose them to probably doesn’t reap the same kind of fandom as a band does. Well, okay then: what if our Subject Matter Experts just *put it out there?* The tools are getting better (Articulate Studio 08 looks promising and easier than Articulate Studio 5). The tools are getting cheaper. The tools are getting easier to use (try editing some video with iMovie 08 and let it just export directly into YouTube). SMEs aren’t taking up the valuable time to get information out to learners — WE ARE. We need to think differently (again) about what our job is — our job is to help craft the message. We can help contextualize it. But getting the message OUT to learners? That doesn’t have to be the job of content developers or instructional designers any more. And it shouldn’t, because we’re wasting time.

What we should be doing is helping identify what the semantic questions are addressed by the SMEs when they capture their knowledge and publish. We should help make it easier for knowledge centers, be they groups of people or individuals themselves, to know that there’s new informational content out in their periphery and provide border resources to pull information together. Field Trainers and Training Managers can be creating “playlists” of the information that is put out by SMEs, customizing that information for learners who have finite and contextual instructional needs.

We’ve tried to automate this with intelligent agents (both in the instructional technologies and even tools like “The Filter” for iTunes) — and they kinda work. But a good instructor knows how to build curriculum. If we make it easier for people to answer their own questions or for facilitators to pull on knowledge resources to quickly create informational materials, I think you’ll have a state where knowledge transfer happens faster and the information is more appropriate. If you couple this with an ability for the learners to SHARE the information that’s useful to them with others, you start to build communities, however dynamic, of learners engaged in the discourse.

This is how users of many generations behave online now. We need to think about how to capitalize on the active engagement of the learner as a possible facilitator of flexible organizational learning.

I welcome your thoughts…

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