How to Help Your Helper Help You


Subject Matter Experts, better known as SMEs, are a well-known and often-feared creature in the instructional design universe.  Most of us are not both an instructional designer and an expert in our course’s topic, so we need an expert.  Someone who not only knows the material, but has the topic fully organized and stored in his or her brain, complete with data from years and years of successes and failures.  But this means you have to invite someone onto your team who comes from a very different world.

Now, experts are great to have.  They have content at their fingertips, they can review the course for accuracy, and they can draw real-life scenarios from their vast memory.  But there is a dark side.  Or perhaps several dark sides.  I believe the dark sides and light sides are fairly equal, but there are many of them.  So everyone imagine one of those old-fashioned salt-and-pepper soccer balls, and let’s move on.

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Dark Side One:  Your SME is not an Instructional Designer.

Yes, in their many years of expertise, they’ve led many a PowerPoint-centric training session.  The training sessions went just fine.  They feel like people learned things.  But expertise in a subject does not equal expertise in how to build an effective and engaging course on the topic.  These are two completely different and equally important fields of expertise.

You’ve probably heard a few of these gems:

“I’ve worked hard on my PowerPoint, so you can just use that.”

“Let’s slap a quiz on the end and call it a day!”

“I’ll speak for about an hour, and that should take care of it.  It’s what I always do.”

Dark Side Two:  Your SME isn’t used to working with people in different fields.

One side effect of being an expert is that you often spend a lot of time working with other experts like themselves.  Engineers work with engineers.  Salespeople work with salespeople.  Marketers work with marketers.  They are surrounded by people with similar thought processes, similar experiences, and similar perspectives.  Even if their peers do challenge them, they may not be used to someone so different doing the challenging.  A technical person is likely to discuss why something technical is correct or incorrect, but have never discussed techniques for making learning stick. It’s bound to be a surprise.

Ever heard these?

“These bullet points are from a book by foremost expert in the field.”

“This is exactly how I learned it.  Why wouldn’t it work?”

“Surely we don’t need to waste time filling out a form about learning goals.  I know what people need to learn.”

Dark Side Three:  SMEs have their own job to do.

They don’t have time for you.  I hear it.  I’m sure you hear it.  I understand.  They don’t exactly have hours of time blocked off to help an instructional designer build a class.

I’m sure these statements ring a bell:

“I really don’t have that kind of time this week.”

“I really don’t have that kind of time next week, either.”

“Can’t I just send you my PowerPoint?”

The Plan

So what do you do about these and other challenges that come with working with SMEs?  Like any partnership, communication is key.  Here are my top tips for an effective Expert/Designer relationship (or any relationship, for that matter):

  1.  Understand everyone’s motivations.  Your very first conversation should be about why a course needs to be made.  Did an executive ask you to work on it?  Why?  Did the expert come up with the idea?  Why?  Did you, the educator, determine there was a need?  What was it?  Do you both have the same motivations to make the course successful?  Or are they different, but equally important?  Maybe there’s not a good reason after all, in which case, ditch the project and don’t look back.  But if there is, the rest of your discussions will be more meaningful knowing why you both care about the project.
  2. Set clear expectations.  Share your expectations, listen to your SME’s.  Make sure your SME knows how much time you’ll need, what that time will entail, what content you expect them to bring, and in what form.  Provide a timeline including project goals and objectives.  And, just as critically, you must be sure that you understand if your SME can commit to all of your hopes, or if some compromises must be made.  This will be a negotiation.  Make concessions as much as you can without hurting the project.  Bring up your motivations and those of your SMEs if needed.  By the end of the conversation, there should be no confusion about what’s going to happen.
  3. Appreciate your SME’s contributions.  Even if some of them seem ridiculous from your point of view.  Thank them for bringing good content.  Acknowledge that they’re working hard to come up with ideas.  Point out they good aspect of whatever suggestion they made.  Then move on to steps 4 and 5.
  4. Question, question, question.  Even though you have a strong vision for what the course will look like, ask what your SME has in mind.  Even though you know you don’t have the budget or desire to make a live-action video, ask what your SME would hope to achieve with it.  Think you already understand the content?  Restate it and ask if you had it right.  You don’t learn anything by telling.  You also don’t make people feel like you care about their opinion by telling.
  5. Challenge. If your SME still insists on dull bullet points, a long lecture, or even just sending you your PowerPoint and running, there comes a point when you must challenge.  Yes, you could come across as rude or pushy.  But, if you’ve already completed all of the previous steps and keep your tone positive, you almost certainly won’t.  And if you don’t challenge, you’ll wind up with a course that is less than what it could be.  Isn’t it worth the risk?
  6. Give credit.  This should really be 3(a), but it’s still important.  Making sure your SMEs contributions are recognized is not only the nice thing to do, but it builds a strong foundation for the next time you need their help.

Remember: you and your SME need each other.  Take the opportunity to remember that working as a team will make sure everyone reaches their goals.

Embed from Getty Images

This week’s Articulate Challenge asked us to create a quiz about Instructional Design concepts.  Check out my contribution, all about working with SMEs.

A screenshot from "On the Road with SMEs"

A screenshot from “On the Road with SMEs”

Oh, is there some big soccer game going on right now?  I didn’t know.


2 thoughts on “How to Help Your Helper Help You

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