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Tapping a SME’s Tacit Knowledge: Part 1

Written By Shalini Merugu

Tapping a SME's Tacit Knowledge: Part 1

“Michael Polanyi said in his book Tacit Knowledge that we know more than we can tell. It is useful to keep this in mind when working with an SME.” This was an interesting comment (Thanks John!) on a recent post: A SME’s Wish List for the eLearning Team. A seemingly simple observation and yet something that can be easily overlooked when interacting with SMEs.

So how do we capture the tacit knowledge in a SME’s mind? And what are the implications for instructional design. A few random thoughts.

Are we barking up the wrong SME?

Many times, the SME on a project is probably not actively involved in work at the end-user level and hence may not be able to give you those important contextual details that can make all the difference between knowing something in an abstract theoretical way and internalizing it for creative application. You need a SME who is involved in more than a purely management capacity or who has lost touch with field work. Your SME needs to know the nitty-gritty of the actual tasks he/she needs to perform to be able to do a given job well. You could in fact consider having multiple SMEs – a functional SME for facts, rules, procedures, policies, and guidelines and a field type SME (for want of a better word) for real-life actual job details.

Are we ensuring an end-user perspective?

Think of the last course you developed on a software simulation. In all probability your SME was a development person who gave you inputs on what he /she felt were the critical must-know aspects of the software. Now that the eLearning course on using the software has been rolled out – not surprisingly, the end-users don’t seem to be able to ‘get it’ as intuitively as the SME thought they would. A classic case of user assistance gone wrong because of a missing end-user perspective.

Implications for Learning Design

Here are a few implications of the above considerations on instructional design

1. Impact on task analysis: Your task analysis could get off to the wrong start if you’re not actively interviewing the actual person who handles the task (whether is using a sophisticated system or operating a machinery or outlining a business process). In which case, by not involving the person who is as close to the desired performance as possible, we could end up not doing a meaningful task analysis that reflects reality as closely as possible. In turn leading to inadequate learning.

2. Impact on content analysis: In addition to asking the experts for information, one of the most powerful ways of tapping their tacit knowledge is by watching them perform a given task or demonstrate a given skill. Which is why in addition to printed materials, ask for demos, videos, live hands-on sessions before you design your course content. This step will help ensure that nothing important slips through the cracks.

3. Impact on learning design strategies at the micro-level: Here are three areas of impact:

  • Provide learning in context: Without meaningful contextual hooks through case studies, real-life scenarios, information on exceptions to a rule, your eLearning strategies will be ineffective. The right SME is one who can give you these details as well, in addition to high-level overviews.
  • Start at the very beginning: Being an expert can sometimes cause a SME to over look very basic, beginner’s level challenges. It is easy to go with the SME’s flow, but as instructional designers, we need to be able to extract back-to-the-basics kind of information first (at the risk of appearing like we’re doing a course for dummies!)
  • Use show and tell as far as possible: In addition to videos being a powerful format for source content, they are equally powerful enablers of learning within the course. Capturing a SME’s live performance and adding a reflective summary that helps learners synthesize the main points helps capture skills as realistically as possible.

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  • Kaushilya

    According to my own practical experience, there are few techniques that have worked well and I have come to trust – both formal and informal depending on the way the technique is adopted.

    Job shadowing/task apprenticeship are simple and effective methods of SME K-transfer that works well for new recruits during their orientation period. Since these situations provide a scenario based environment, it is more hands on training. The downside of this technique is the junior/learner has to be an active learner.

    A more streamlined technique would be incorporating routine K-transfer forums to disseminate e.g. informal – brain storming/discussion forums to openly table and solve practical bottlenecks and issues
    formal – routine lectures/training/story telling sessions where SMEs can present their pragmatic and conceptual knowledge to a wider audience in a more structured manner.
    The above works well in most situations. And, in my opinion, these should be a mandate in any organization that focuses on advancing oneself.

    At the same time, an aspect commonly overlooked by KM initiatives is getting the SMEs involved in the learning & development program – not just as presenters- but to take part in the designing and evolution of the T&D.

    Having said all of the above……
    Like the article says, if we bark up at the wrong SMEs for support, none of the above would work. The article provides the answer for this issue – having a panel of SMEs instead of one.
    To add a bit on this…. it is always advisable to have a feedback loop on the perception of the ongoing initiatives and their impact, from:
    – the people who are actually the recipients of the K-transfer
    – the SMEs
    – even support staff sometimes may have good insights to offer

    Feedback shouldn’t be just feedback but a “feedback loop” where the feedback actually has an impact on the K-transfer initiative – which is important to build up credibility and trust of the initiatives.

  • Pingback: Tapping a SME’s Tacit Knowledge: Part 2 | Custom Training and eLearning Blog()

  • Michael J. Spangle

    This site has consistently posted excellent articles, and this one is no exception. In the nuclear world, in the U.S., training programs employee virtually every point that you have brought up.

    While it is true that the management level SME can identify management expectations, procedural requirements, etc., it is the craftsperson or operator who actually has current experience with the requirements of the task.

    If a detailed Job and Task Analysis has been done in advance then, by using the KSA statements, one can drive content for the basal courses and establish prerequisites for the higher level courses. This helps to minimize the possibility of a trainee who is unprepared to learn the material from taking the class.

  • According to my own practical experience, there are few techniques that have worked well and I have come to trust – both formal and informal depending on the way the technique is adopted.

    Job shadowing/task apprenticeship are simple and effective methods of SME K-transfer that works well for new recruits during their orientation period. Since these situations provide a scenario based environment, it is more hands on training. The downside of this technique is the junior/learner has to be an active learner.

    A more streamlined technique would be incorporating routine K-transfer forums to disseminate e.g. informal – brain storming/discussion forums to openly table and solve practical bottlenecks and issues
    formal – routine lectures/training/story telling sessions where SMEs can present their pragmatic and conceptual knowledge to a wider audience in a more structured manner.
    The above works well in most situations. And, in my opinion, these should be a mandate in any organization that focuses on advancing oneself.

    At the same time, an aspect commonly overlooked by KM initiatives is getting the SMEs involved in the learning & development program – not just as presenters- but to take part in the designing and evolution of the T&D.

    Having said all of the above……
    Like the article says, if we bark up at the wrong SMEs for support, none of the above would work. The article provides the answer for this issue – having a panel of SMEs instead of one.
    To add a bit on this…. it is always advisable to have a feedback loop on the perception of the ongoing initiatives and their impact, from:
    – the people who are actually the recipients of the K-transfer
    – the SMEs
    – even support staff sometimes may have good insights to offer

    Feedback shouldn’t be just feedback but a “feedback loop” where the feedback actually has an impact on the K-transfer initiative – which is important to build up credibility and trust of the initiatives.

  • Thanks for those extremely relevant inputs Michael and Kaushilya! You’re both right in emphasizing a detailed Job and Task Analysis,
    Job shadowing/task apprenticeship and incorporating routine K-transfer forums for informal dissemination of know how. As you’ve also pointed out, feedback loops are a good way of ensuring that learning becomes a process rather than being a one-off event. Glad you liked this blog post!