A large part of what I do as an instructional designer is working with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). These are the people we hire because they have the deep knowledge of a specific area. In my company, they also often eventually serve as facilitators for the course. Of course, some SMEs are easier to work with than others, and every SME has individual quirks that I need to figure out to work with them successfully. One of the great things about our team is that we spend a lot of time discussing our SMEs and sharing ideas and strategies. Even though I’d worked with SMEs before, I feel like I’ve learned more from my experiences in the last year, and I know that bouncing ideas off the others on the team is a big part of that.
I want to start recording some of the strategies that have worked (and some of the ones that haven’t) here, to clarify my own “lessons learned.” This won’t be a structured series the way my Instructional Design careers set was where I had all the posts planned out in advance. I haven’t organized my thoughts that well yet–that’s what I’m going to use the blog for. So, please forgive me if they seem a bit unstructured.
And now for the first strategy…
One of the most helpful strategies I’ve used is asking SMEs directly how they best communicate. Yes, the strategy is that simple: Ask how they want to communicate. So much of the success of the relationship rests on how well we communicate with each other. I try to ask this question during my introductory phone call with the SME. At this point in the process, I’m mostly just looking for the technology: email, phone, IM, Skype, etc. I can work through any of those methods, but I need to know what’s going to be best for the SME. I’ve had several SMEs who really need to talk through ideas on the phone; they need that interplay with a live person, and they need the auditory to make connections. I’ve had others who did almost everything in writing, usually through email with a little IM. Knowing that upfront means I don’t waste time writing long emails to a SME who really needs to hear my feedback on the phone.
As the development progresses, I try to refine the communication a bit more. On one of the very first projects I worked on with a SME, I gave my initial feedback in long paragraphs. My observations were mixed in with what I needed him to do next, and none of it was particularly succinct. I did a lousy job of communicating what I wanted, but fortunately that SME called me up and told me point blank that he didn’t understand. After that, I gave him bullet points spelling out specifically what I needed changed, plus we went over the to-do list on the phone. I’d never give a SME a rambling paragraph like that now, but I do try to tailor my feedback. Some SMEs really need hard deadlines to work to, but I’ve had others who do better with some flexibility. Some need me to break down the goals and give them very detailed tasks, but others would go crazy if I micromanaged them that much.
It can be tricky to find the right communication method and style with SMEs, but I do find it’s getting easier with time. I learn something new from every SME I work with, and I feel like I’m accumulating enough of a “bag of tricks” now that I have strategies for most situations.
If you have a great strategy for communicating with SMEs, I’d love to hear about it.