When news broke that Sean Penn interviewed the infamous drug kingpin El Chapo for Rolling Stone, it didn’t take long for professional writers to speak up about how they felt about it.

Journalists from the Washington Post, New York Times, and many more noted how dangerous this move was on Penn’s part—and how many professional writers had been killed trying to get high-stakes interviews like this one.

Not to mention that Penn is not a trained professional in the world of interviewing and journalism.

This sheds some light on an important topic for eLearning, too. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) have the professional insight and expertise that should be leaned on when building a course with in-depth content on a specific topic. Not only does it add validity and ethos to the material, but it also helps guarantee that the client is providing its trainees with valid, relevant information.

Let’s look at a few of these points in a bit more detail.

The Importance of an Expert

In the case of the Sean Penn article, we have a celebrity who jumped at the chance for adventure. And perhaps due to his lack of professional journalism experience, his article missed the opportunity to cover an important issue—the war on drugs—and got more coverage instead on the fact that he was the wrong person to take this opportunity.

He told Vanity Fair, “I have a regret that the entire discussion about this article ignores its purpose, which was to try to contribute to this discussion about the policy in the war on drugs.”

In an eLearning context, missing an opportunity with a SME can mean the difference between a course that delivers mediocre results—and one that is a home run for in-depth, complex material. As Instructional Designers, we’re experts on bringing courses together—and therefore we can’t be experts on every topic a client needs a course built around. That’s where SMEs come in.

Bottom line: Interviewing a SME means calling on a trusted resource for a specific topic, and adds validity to your course.

A Smoother Development Process

In Sean Penn’s case, he entered his assignment without really knowing what to expect. After all, he’d never conducted a high-stakes interview as a journalist before, so how could he prepare? It’s hard to say specifically how a professional would have prepared for this interview, but we’d guess it’s likely they’d have a protocol to follow.

On the eLearning side of things, SMEs are also valued for their ability to speed up the content development process for a course. Because they’re working from an existing framework of knowledge, when properly prepped, they can efficiently share the most pertinent information for a course so that the process doesn’t drag on.

Bottom line: An expert knows how to best approach information-gathering/sharing processes based on their past experience in the field and your professional guidance.

Don’t Use the Sean Penn of SMEs in Your Course

Penn certainly had a unique experience, and it’s not to say that his interview was fruitless. However, we can learn from the after effects of his experience that in some cases, it’s just better to call on an expert.

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