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5 Ways to Get the Best from Your SMEs

When working on complex, specialized topics, instructional designers often need to draw on experts in the field to help generate an insightful, effective elearning experience. These subject matter experts (SMEs) know vast amounts about the matter at hand, but don’t always comprehend the needs of learners or the principles of good instructional design. How can you utilize the teeming brain of your SME while balancing training goals and needs of the learner?

Here are 5 ways to get the most from your subject matter experts:

1. Become familiar with the subject

The instructional designer’s job is to act as a go-between, translating the expert’s knowledge into something useful and accessible for the learner. To do this, an instructional designer first needs to speak the expert’s language. Read over the information the SME sends you and get a grasp on jargon. Having this proficiency will show the SME you respect them, their time and you’re ready to work. This respect is key! It will make the SME more trusting when it comes time to pare down and eliminate excessive information.

2. Talk it out

Once you’ve become familiar with the subject matter, it’s time to meet the SME face to face. By talking the topic over conversationally, you and the SME have a chance to hash out what’s really important—what the learner needs to know. Ask plenty of questions and talk about learning objectives.

In addition to clarifying your own knowledge of the subject and laying out key concepts, you can share with the SME your perspective as an instructional designer. Help them understand what instructional designers do, emphasizing the need to simplify and clarify the course materials.

Here Cathy Moore suggests some questions to put to a hard-shelled SME.

3. Set up a schedule

From the first meeting, set up a schedule and establish clear expectations.

Your SME knows a lot, so it can be easy for them to become distracted by the many possibilities of loading information into the course. It is your responsibility as an instructional designer or project manager to manage the SME’s time. From the first meeting, set up a schedule and establish clear expectations. Include deadlines. Talk to the SME about when they are available to work and what their preferred means of communication is. The SME might be an academic or a consultant with other priorities, so be prepared to be flexible and accommodating.

4. Limit information

It’s essential to drive home to the SME the importance of limiting the cognitive load for the learner. Your objective is not to create PhDs, but to help people do their jobs. Be prepared for some resistance from the SME, who may feel that all of the information they provide should be included in the course.

Use a process of triage to decide what information should be included. What does the learner absolutely need to know? Start from here and build outward. If there is information that is not essential but may be of interest to more ambitious learners, consider including it as a resource page in the course.

5. Focus on the learner

As you collaborate with an SME, don’t frame the decision-making process as “what I want vs. what you want.” Instead, always refer to the learner as your common interest. You are both working for the learner, and it is their experience that determines the success of the course.  To create this focus, try rephrasing a question such as “how does this process work?” to “what would the employee need to know in order to get this right?” You can also help the SME understand learner’s needs by showing them some examples of good e-learning. Walk them through a sample of an existing course and explain how activities, graphics, etc. are conducive to elearning.

A collaboration between instructional designer and SME can be rewarding for both parties. As Chuck Hodell writes for the Association of Talent Development, “Some of my most satisfying work in training has been the countless hours spent in the company of really bright and energetic content professionals.” A strong familiarity with the subject matter, good management skills and a focus on the learner will allow you to get the very best out of your SMEs.