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The Ten Keys to Working (Well) with Subject Matter Experts:

A learning designer is, in a way, a sort of sculptor. We take lots of raw, untempered information and mould it into something comprehensible, even enlightening. Our trade is founded on being able to handle all sorts of different content and transform it into something that can be understood and enjoyed by others.

That being said, a big part of our job involves learning this new content ourselves, and to do that accurately and effectively, we often need the help of those who are specialists in the field we are trying to learn about. That’s when subject matter experts (SMEs) come in.

But working with SMEs isn’t always a breeze. They’re experts in their field, not experts at learning design, and sometimes this knowledge gap can lead to confusions and conflicts that make the whole process a lot messier than it needs to be.

If this is a struggle you can relate to, or one that you fear lies in your future, let your anxieties abate, we have some simple tips to help smooth out the process of working with SMEs.

#1: Respect the Roles:

Learning designers and subject matter experts do very different things. As mentioned before, an SME provides a range of raw materials, and the learning designer consolidates and shapes that material into something digestible to the audience. SMEs give the learning designer insight into the needs of their audience, while the designer tries to meet those needs.

A lot of conflict can arise when one tries to do the job of the other. When a designer starts to question the expertise of the SME, or the SME is unwilling to accept the limits of what a designer can do, they cross the boundary of their role and things can get out of control very quickly.

This is why it’s important to clarify and establish the separate roles to both parties as early as possible. Be sure to communicate the expectations and responsibilities of the two roles clearly, and then even ask the SME if there is anything they would like to add or clarify about those roles. This way, everyone knows exactly the boundaries of their responsibilities, and knows when to step back and let the other do their work.

#2: Ask the Right Questions:

SMEs are a wealth of information—not just about their particular subject area, but about the learners you will be designing for and the context of the learning you are creating. The insight they can give you can make the difference between a generic learning experience, and one that is genuinely helpful to the learners.

But to be able to get the useful information from an SME, you need to know what questions to ask them. Here are some examples:

  • What is the goal or purpose of this learning?
  • Has this course been delivered before? If so, how? 
  • Who are the target learners? What are their motivations/barriers to doing this learning?
  • What level of existing knowledge do the learners have? 
  • What actions/behaviours will the learners need to be able to perform?
  • What information do the learners need to know to perform these actions/behaviours?
  • How will you assess the learners?
  • How will you measure success? 

If you’re using a learning canvas, most of these questions will come up naturally as you go through it. It’s important find the answers to these sorts of questions in order to create learning that achieves the goals of the course and know the difference between information you need and information you don’t.

#3: Plan Ahead (with Deadlines!):

Once you know what the purpose of the learning is and the kind of information you want in it, it can be easy to slip into just going with the flow. People get busy, and your SME, however excited they may be about the project, will inevitably get distracted from it by other important aspects of their life. And once they start to drift, it can be very hard to reel them back in again—and before you know it, you’ve been working on the same project for far longer than you wanted to, with very little guidance from your SME, who seems to be out of range somehow.

This is why, from the start, you should project a plan that includes realistic deadlines and milestones that you and your SME can agree to. Some milestones it’s good to keep track of include outlines, drafts, review rounds and feedback, and the final sign off. That way, you both can stay accountable and on track with your respective responsibilities.

#4: Learn More About the SME:

Everyone works in different ways, and although this diversity of practice can be really enriching in team projects, misunderstandings can make working together quite difficult. Thus, early on in the project, it is important to make a conscious effort to understand your SMEs preferences and idiosyncrasies, so as to avoid miscommunication and surprises down the track.

Remember that your SME almost certainly has countless other responsibilities they’re juggling alongside what they’re working on with you. So, ask them: how do you like to work? What methods are you most comfortable with? What tools do you use to get your work done?

By using some empathy with your SME early on, you can avoid unnecessary troubles later.

#5: Get them Involved:

Just as it is important for you to try and understand the world of your SME, it is also important for you to try and help them understand the realm you are working in. For an SME, it can be very difficult to know what kind of information to provide, or why certain limitations are there, if they don’t know the process you go through when creating learning.

To give them a better understanding of what it is you actually do, show them some of the behind-the-scenes work. Give them examples of previous learning experiences you have created and show them the kind of work that goes into making something like that. Not only will this help them to understand why you make certain decisions, but it will also make them feel more involved in the process, and thus more invested in co-operating to produce a desirable outcome for everyone.

#6: Reviews and Feedback:

One of the important roles of an SME is to review a piece of work and suggest changes that should be made to improve it. However, if there has not been clear communication about how this process should look, things can get ridiculous. You might end up with mountains of feedback from different reviewers, all with different, conflicting ideas of what to change. Or perhaps you’ll be nearing the final deadline of a project, and in the second review, the SME simply decides that they want almost everything to be redone. There are things you can do to stop this kind of madness from happening.

Certain expectations of the review and feedback process need to be set out from the very start to avoid wild confusion and frantic alterations. For example, set different standards for alpha and beta reviews—alpha reviews should be where all the big changes happen, but by the time the project gets to beta, they should only be asking for minor fixes. The level of detail of the feedback should also be clarified quite early—after all, if the feedback is too vague, it is likely you will not produce exactly what the SME had in mind (if indeed they had a specific vision in the first place).

If you have multiple reviewers, you may also need to outline that all the feedback from each reviewer should be collated and organised by just one of them, to avoid running into overlapping or conflicting suggestions.

#7: Keep them on Track:

Remember, you SME probably hasn’t had much experience with learning design. It’s pretty easy for them to get caught up in the novelty of the design process or the fine details of the content they are providing. All of these things are great, but they can distract from the overall goal of the project if not kept in check.

Every now and then, it can be good to remind the SME of the purpose of the learning experience they are helping to create and bring their minds back to the original questions you asked them to clarify what the program needs.

#8: Know when to Push Back:

This is kind of like respecting the roles, but it bears emphasising—SMEs are not learning designers. They do not always understand the difference between good and bad learning, and sometimes their suggestions are…questionable.

You do not have to take everything your SME says as gospel. That’s not to say that you should presume to know better than them, but you are in the role you’re in for a reason—you know how to design good learning. So, if you have questions or objections, you should be able to respectfully explain them to your SME. Communicate with clarity, honesty and respect, and listen to all points of view presented, and this process should go a lot more easily.

Even so, however, you will still likely have some rough times working with your SME. And that brings me to the next point.

#9: SMEs are People Too:

SMEs can be difficult people to work with sometimes. Perhaps they miss deadlines, or don’t respond to your emails within a week, or just seem fussy about what to include in the learning experience. When the work gets heavy and things get a bit messy, it can be easy to see the SME as nothing more than an obstacle to getting the project done.

But it’s important to keep reminding yourself that, although they may be experts in their field, your SME is only human, and every human is flawed. They’re going to make mistakes; they’re going to be difficult at points. Sometimes, they’re going to have bad days. They aren’t always going to make your life easier. But that doesn’t make them your enemy—you’re both actually working towards the same thing.

So, from the very start, try to build a healthy relationship between you and your SME—one of mutual respect and open communication, where both of you can feel comfortable with the decisions being made. And remember that the SME has to put a lot of time and effort into this project too—acknowledge their efforts, make sure that they know that they are a valued part of the team and their input matters. This will not only help the project to run more smoothly, but it will also make it a lot more enjoyable for everyone!

#10: Follow Up:

SMEs aren’t perfect—but neither are we. You might have to swallow your pride a bit, but at the end of your project, reach out to your SME ask them sincerely what you could’ve done better. This way, you can improve for next time and hopefully make things a bit easier for all involved

The common thread to all these tips is to make sure that communication is open and clear, and that the standards and expectations of the project are set out from as early as possible. Keep doing this, and you’ll soon become an expert in working with subject matter experts.

Beth Kaldas
30 March 2022 7 Min Read

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