Training

Subject Matter Experts and Expertise in the Firearms Training Industry

I often hear the term “subject matter expert” used in connection with firearms trainers, and I have to confess it is a foreign concept to me. I mean, I can understand the plain language meaning of those three words put together. But in terms of the SME as a specific designation, I have not heard it used in my area of professional expertise.

According to Wikipedia, “A subject-matter expert (SME) or domain expert is a person who is an authority in a particular area or topic.” This seems an inadequate definition because it begs the question, what is the basis of the authority? To be a subject matter expert, “one must have special skills or knowledge on a particular job or topic.” Even moreso, according to the process improvement methodology Six Sigma, “The Subject Matter Expert is that individual who exhibits the highest level of expertise in performing a specialized job, task, or skill within the organization.” Who counts as an expert and what counts as expertise matters because, as Wikipedia suggests, this is tied to authority.

So, what makes a person a “subject matter expert” in the area of firearms training?

There is no single accepted standard. As noted in my earlier series of posts on private citizen firearms training, the industry is largely unregulated and loosely organized. As the number of firearms trainers has increased quite dramatically in this shall-issue era of concealed carry, the issue of expertise arises more and more.

The question of what constitutes “expertise,” and therefore a subject matter expert, in firearms training is no different than in other domains. As sociologist Gil Eyal has written about expertise:

“[A]s long as it was fairly clear who the experts were, and how to recognize them there was little discussion of expertise, but once the number of contenders for expert status has increased and the bases for their claims have become more heterogeneous, once the struggles between these would-be experts intensified, expertise became problematized because the question was how to determine whose claim is legitimate.”

Most firearms trainers I have met are fiscally conservative or libertarian, so look askance at efforts to determine legitimacy that would involve regulation by any centralized body, whether that be a government, union, or even a binding professional association.

This leaves it largely for the marketplace to work out, PROVIDED that consumers are making informed buying decisions. The problem is, consumers of firearms training most often don’t know what they don’t know. Because anybody can present himself as a subject matter expert in the area of firearms training, the notion of a subject matter expert without anything to back it up is meaningless.

As always, even when consuming subject matter expertise, caveat emptor.

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4 thoughts on “Subject Matter Experts and Expertise in the Firearms Training Industry

  1. My employer uses the concept of “SME”; it is a sort of a bureaucrat-eze for who Management thinks is an SME. What is an “SME”? Someone management defines as an SME. In my case, 14 years of prior experience, documented, in my field along with letters of reference from other “SME” types were provided, but all that is equivalent in some respects to “it takes one to know one” or “trust me, I’m a scientist”. Pardon the cynicism.

    To get a CHL here in New Mexico, one has to take a weekend class from someone the state of NM licenses as providing training that meets state specs. Since NM didn’t really have its own curriculum, it relies on that of others, plus a module on NM law and self defense law. The potential instructor has to submit such a curriculum plus a cv. (all this laid out in 10.8.2.22 of this document http://www.dps.state.nm.us/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/NMAC_11302016.pdf ) Whether the Dept. of Public Safety’s blessings on an instructor really mean that person is an SME is kinda like my employer’s blessings. It can be a bit of question-begging.

    This kinda reminds me of Phadrus’ quest for defining Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Speaking of which, I better buy a copy of Lila to go with Zen and the Art…

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Sometimes it takes one to know one. Back in my days of taking formal instruction in unarmed martial arts, I had some pretty good instructors in karate, aikido and Kung fu. I certainly was no SME, but I was good enough to be able to size up any new potential instructor as to their ‘SME status’, most of the time at least. Even then there were some claiming to be who weren’t. Of course, the traditional way of doing that was to fight the instructor to see if they were better than you. If they won, they were a better SME than you!

    This brings up the question of how good does an instructor have to be? Do they need to be recognized as a SME by a lot of people? Or do they just have to know more than their audience? My position is that you can learn something from someone who knows just a bit more than you do, even if they aren’t a SME. I just don’t want them teaching incorrect info – so the real issue becomes how to tell if what someone teaches is ‘not wrong’. An analogy might be in the academic field where first year grad students routinely teach first year basic undergrad classes or labs, but more advanced topics require more expertise and experience (more SME-ness) held by senior level grad students, post docs, and/or professors. When does the academic become an SME in that progression? (am I overstating the obvious here? )

    Liked by 3 people

    • I suppose the basic question is “what are we trying to teach, and who is functionally qualified to teach it?” As you state, one does not have to be a world class scholar to effectively teach Meteorology 101; to some degree the talent for teaching is more important than one’s citation index. I suspect the same can be said for different levels of self defense training. The question is more critical for those who have no or little knowledge of firearms or self defense. Who protects them from snake oil?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I took my armed security course it was taught by a Greensboro PD officer. He commented that it was basically the same as the CCW course he taught. It didn’t include some of the pistol basics (stance, breathing, finger control) but did include range safety and safe handling of a firearm. The bulk of the training was on relevant laws for NC like what Khal mentioned for NM. I considered the officer an SME because he had the training and was a professional LEO.

    Liked by 3 people

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