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A SME’s Wish List for the eLearning Team

Written By Shalini Merugu

A SME's Wish List for the eLearning Team

Managing Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) is both a science and an art, as many battle-scarred project managers, instructional designers, and SMEs themselves will attest to. Here’s a list of dos and don’ts that SMEs wish eLearning teams would remember.

  • Do your homework before we meet. Please: In all probability, you already have access to the raw content mailed across earlier. Going through the source content for the first time during the meeting is going to make meetings longer-drawn than necessary. It would be great if you come prepared with a basic outline, broad objectives and a list of questions on the content that you’d like me to answer in our first meeting. If for some reason, inputs from my side are delayed, any background research you could do on the subject will be of great help in giving you some broad context.
  • Set clear expectations: Double-check with me on the level of experience and expertise you expect. If there is a mismatch between your expectations and my background, you might want to request for a SME who is closer to your expectation. Also, clarify my role upfront. Is it just to give you content? Or do reviews? Or both? How many rounds of reviews can I expect? And when? What about signoffs? Who else is in the loop?
  • Respect my time and commitment: Right at the beginning, be aware of my unavailable time. I may be out of town attending a seminar or may be on my annual vacation. Ask for my schedule in case I forget to share it with you. Also, do add adequate buffer time – this will help both of us avoid sleepless nights.
  • Get buy-in for the process: Don’t assume that I will understand your process intuitively. Let me know what are the broad milestones, what is your process for communication and so on. Let me also know how much of communication is through which mode (Weekly meetings? Quick status calldaily? )
  • Share the project plan and walk me through it: I know I’m supposed to go through the plan, but please go one extra mile and share it with me. Do highlight points on the schedule where a deliverable is due from me. Also, make me aware of the risk of delayed inputs or the ripple effect of changing content direction mid-way. Theoretically I know all of this, but a reminder will ensure nothing slips through the cracks.
  • Send me material for review in one go: At least as far as possible. If you are sending me content for review for a given module, send it all together. I really wouldn’t like to review Parts I to V for a single module, unless of its length and complexity warrants breaking it up into chunks.
  • Establish acceptable Turn Around Time (TAT): 24 hours is a reasonable time for an email reply to questions or information. Don’t in the meanwhile leave frantic messages on my voicemail. Give me a chance to respond first.
  • Please don’t surprise me – I have enough going on in my work life right now. Though it is my job to be the SME on this project, I need to take time out from my regular responsibilities to be available for reviews and stuff. I would appreciate it if there are no surprises sprung on me. I have enough excitement at work. Trust me on this one.

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  • The impression I get from the wishlist above is a desire for a one sided relationship between the SME and the instructional designer, where the underlying message is “I really don’t want to be involved in this project”.

  • John, though I’m playing the devil’s advocate here, am by no means recommending a one-sided relationship. This wishlist is simply to help the eLearning team walk in the SMEs’ shoes (and win over the occasional reluctant or skeptical SME while they are at it!).

    A lot of times, SMEs do come on board with exactly the stance you mentioned of not wanting to be too involved in the project. Many times, they have been ‘volunteered’ for the mission and are not too enthusiastic (understandably so). So how do we get them on board and interested? By making their involvement in the project as painless as we can. Would love to hear your thoughts on making life easy for the SME on the project. Thanks for your comments!

  • Shalini, Sometimes both the SME and the Instructional Designer is in constant danger of losing the objective of their project. For me, the first meeting with an SME is “a getting to know you meeting” in order to establish the level of commitment of both of us. Before that meeting ends, we must establish respect for each others expertise. The second meeting focuses of the object of the project, which is delivering the best instruction to a specified audience where they experience success. Each encounter must have that as its objective.
    SMEs are fascinating creatures, and they are not pedagogues. An expert does not know why he is an expert. Their expertise is “automaticised” and operates in their subconscious. It is when you are asking questions about how they do a certain thing is where trouble starts. Once you ask them to consciously play-back the performance of a task, they have to retrieve it from their subconscious. They are now playing the task in their consciousness, and they start to doubt themselves. 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. The process should reveal to the SME more knowledge about his/her expertise and this is beneficial to all. Regards.

  • Pingback: Tapping a SME’s Tacit Knowledge: Part 1 | Custom Training and eLearning Blog()

  • I like this statement, “SMEs are fascinating creatures” :)
    And you make some excellent points. As an in-house SME for certain creative projects, I can especially relate to this bit about “when you are asking questions about how they do a certain thing is where trouble starts.” It’s hard to retrieve stuff from the subconscious with creative stuff, because the mental process you follow could be diametrically opposite to that of someone else doing the same job. Procedures are easy to standardize, but the creative process isn’t.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your perspective John. Have shared a few thoughts on the challenge of tapping a SME’s tacit knowledge in the latest blog post. Do check it out. Looking forward to more discussions on other blog posts. Regards.