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The SME: An ISD’s Best Content Friend

By Denise Renton, ILG Contributor

How to Effectively Work With Subject Matter Experts

In my many years as an instructional systems designer (ISD), I’ve learned about a lot of  other jobs in a number of different industries. I started out at a company that focused on government defense and have gone on to projects in automotive, utilities, medical technology, healthcare, insurance, financial services, and retail. Because of the diversity of projects I’ve worked on, I’ve never been bored! How could I when I’m always discovering what it takes for people to be successful in their roles?

I know nothing about flying a jet or navigating a convoy of ships, making a vaccine or HVAC system for a car, mounting solar panels, or leading a company, but I’ve been able to create learning for all of these professions because of subject matter experts. Whether a company refers to them as “smeeze” or S-M-Es, they’re my curators of content, explainers of concepts and details, providers of real-life examples, and keepers of industry and company knowledge. Without them, all my expertise in adult learning theory and instructional design isn’t that helpful. But together, we create just what learners need when they need it.

Given the lovely symbiosis that I’ve just described, it’s important to acknowledge that instructional designers and SMEs typically approach a project from different perspectives: instructional designers drive toward meeting objectives with appropriate content and instructional strategies, while SMEs focus on everything they believe a learner needs to know.

Working with SMEs Best Practices

Following these best practices doesn’t mean that issues still won’t arise. Here are three that I often encounter:

  • Set expectations: Do this right up front during the kick-off meeting. Share the schedule, highlighting where SMEs’ time will be needed for content meetings and reviews. Confirm that dates work for them. Let SMEs know approximately how much time to set aside to review a design document, storyboards, facilitator guide, or programmed course. Show examples of these deliverables if SMEs haven’t worked on a learning project before. What does a design document look like? What should they focus on when reviewing first draft storyboards or first draft programming?
  • Explain roles: Make it clear that SMEs don’t have to write or create anything. That’s the ISDs  job. What you need from the SME is exactly what their title says:  expertise about the subject matter (or content). Explain that while you aren’t a subject matter expert in their topic, you’re an expert in adult learning. So, you’ll help shape the content and wisdom they provide. And you’ll use the objectives to guide design and development, ensuring the learners get what they need… nothing more, nothing less..
  • Guide SMEs as they guide you: Help SMEs understand the instructional design process and best practices. For example, if they want to include a step-by-step process that learners will do on rare occasions, point out that learners may not remember the process steps or they’ll need to return to the course to look them up when needed. There are better ways to share this content, for example, in a job aid learners can access as needed.
  • Be proactive: Reach out for content meetings or send emails with questions as soon as you identify a need. Request photos and diagrams as soon as possible. Open files as soon as they’re provided to make sure they’re what you’re expecting. Waiting until right before a delivery and then expecting SMEs to be available on short notice to get you what you need can be frustrating.
  • Ask for clarification: If you’re overwhelmed with files or large documents, don’t be afraid to ask the SME where you should focus your attention. If you find conflicting information or different terms and titles for the same thing, ask which is correct. If you simply don’t understand something, ask SMEs to walk you through it at a “101” level or to give you examples that “make it real.”
  • Do your homework: If you come across terms or concepts you don’t understand, try googling first before asking. There’s a lot of information out there, and you can save time during content meetings and be more knowledgeable, at the same time, if you’ve done a little prep work first.

Issues That Can Arise

Following these best practices doesn’t mean that issues still won’t arise. Here are three that I often encounter:

  • Too many SMEs: When there are too many SMEs on a project, it’s often difficult to gain consensus on content. Identifying a lead SME or final decisionmaker is important.
  • Lack of availability: Setting project expectations may not always prepare SMEs for the amount of time needed to support a learning project, or other unforeseen priorities may interfere. This is a good time to pull in project managers to help decide how to move forward. Respecting SMEs’ time and being flexible to try to meet deadlines in different ways, for example, reviewing together in real time during a meeting, can go a long way to maintaining the relationship and getting the work done.
  • Too much content: Because SMEs are passionate about what they do, they often want to include more content than is needed. Never just say no. Be curious. Why is this so important? Is it necessary for learners to know this to accomplish a task or meet a responsibility? Do we need to revisit the objectives to include this? Will learners get this in another course or through on-the-job training? If it is a nice-to-know rather than a must-know, is there a different way to provide the information? If learners want to know more, for example, point them to articles, websites, or other training, or include an optional pop-up graphic in an e-learning.

SMEs have made my instructional design career possible. Without their wisdom, I’d be struggling to develop courses on topics I know little about. SMEs have also made my career interesting. They’re one of the reasons I continue to do what I do… always learning something new about what other people do.

Denise Renton is a freelance instructional designer and performance consultant. She has more than 30 years’ experience in the training and performance improvement industry. Denise was on staff at Innovative Learning Group from 2012 to 2021.

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