Three Must-Know Strategies for Working with SMEs

A good experience working with SMEs (subject-matter experts) can mean the difference between an effective versus an ineffective course; between a project that finishes on time versus a project that drags on in endless revision cycles. The truth is, you need your SMEs, and your SMEs need you! It’s your job to work with you SMEs to extract the most relevant information your learners need to know…or do (more on that later).

Here are three must-know strategies to use when working with SMEs on your next e-learning project.

Strategy #1: Identify Your SME’s Business Goals

Working with SMEs

When you first meet with a SME on a new e-learning project, it’s easy to get them to list all of the things they want learners to know about the topic you’re addressing. The problem with this approach is that it usually results in an information dump on the learner. As Diane Elkins explained in this post and this post, knowledge alone rarely translates into a measurable change in performance by the learner.

Rather than discussing all of the information learners need to know, start the conversation by finding out the business goals your SME wants to achieve as a result of the course you’re creating. Focusing on your SME’s business goals not only shows that you are invested in the success of the course, but it also lets you focus on the behaviors your learners need to change, not the information they need to know.  

Action Mapping by Cathy Moore is a great way to focus your instructional design on business goals and the actions that learners need to take to affect those goals.

Strategy #2: Educate Your SMEs About E-Learning

Working with SMEs

Different people have different ideas of what e-learning is, what it looks like, and how it’s developed. It’s easy to assume your SME knows the purpose of learning objectives, a storyboard, or a prototype. However, in reality, it may be the first time your SME has ever muttered the word “e-learning,” let alone participated in the design of one from beginning to end.

Help your SMEs by guiding and educating them about the e-learning development process. For example, when you deliver your first storyboard or prototype, explain to your SME the purpose of such items and how they fit into the overall development process. By doing this, you instill a sense trust and credibility with your SMEs and help them further understand their role in the process.

Strategy #3: Get Your SMEs in the Same Room

Working with SMEs

One of the most time-consuming tasks during the e-learning development process is reviewing, interpreting, and making edits provided by your SMEs. This is especially true when you’re working with more than one SME. Although it’s easy to have your SMEs simply document their edits in a spreadsheet, too often, their edits are too vague or conflict with one another. Ultimately, this results in you having to go back and clarify the edits with each of your SMEs.

Avoid this by getting your SMEs in the same room (or on the same conference line) to review and discuss their edits. This lets you quickly clarify any confusing edits and explain the purpose of any specific design decisions you made. Also, if any of your SMEs provided conflicting edits, this meeting is an opportunity to discuss those edits a come to an agreed solution.

Working with SMEs doesn’t have to be a stress-inducing experience. Although you’ll need to manage your SMEs’ expectations and unravel their misconceptions about e-learning, the process can be a success if you’re strategic from the beginning.

What other tips can you share about working with SMEs? Share them by commenting below!

Tim Slade

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