I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
– Albert Einstein
This article is a guide on establishing and maintaining a productive working relationship with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).
One of the joys of being a learning designer is the opportunity to learn new things, including things that we’ve known little or none about. A big part of this awesome learning comes from our experiences working with SMEs. Working with SMEs is an important task of our job as learning designers. But is this process always smooth, fun, and exciting?
Working with someone who is in a different field is rewarding but certainly challenging. And if you have ever felt frustrated in the process, you are not alone. Working with an SME is a delicate process that requires careful planning, attention and an attitude of not taking things for granted. Participating productively in an in-depth conversation with an expert about topics that you are unfamiliar with, especially very technical topics, is not an easy task. Conversations can become confusing at times, and missing out important stuff is a real concern. Imagine being in a meeting that people speak in a foreign language that you are not fluent in or worse yet, just started learning.
The success of a project often depends on how well the SMEs contribute to it, and we, as learning designers, need to overcome challenges and facilitate this contribution effectively. In this article, I share some tips that help me work productively with SMEs and get the most out of this important collaboration. I’m sure different learning designers have different ways to work with SMEs – so definitely don’t take this as the only way – but you may find here a few ideas that add value to your design workflow.
To know what we need to do have a productive partnership with our SMEs, it is good to recognise the challenges we often face when working with them. We should not generalise these to every SME, but these are quite common challenges.
Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Just find a new way to stand.
– Oprah Winfrey
I find that there are three key challenges in working with SMEs. If you think of another challenge, I would love to hear your thoughts in the Comments section.
The mindset challenge
SMEs are experts in their fields. They have a wealth of knowledge and are an invaluable resource to a learning project. However, they often bring to a project their preconceived ideas of how things should be taught and what needs to be included in a course. They can have a hard time letting go of content. The desire to include everything is strong. For many of them (definitely not all), teaching is about transmitting knowledge, and online learning is either a new territory or doesn’t have a good reputation from their own online learning experience. Fortunately, the attitude towards online learning will become more positive with time. Online learning has increasingly become a part of our life, and online learning quality is getting better.
To address this challenge, you need to actively engage in change management, to steer the passionate experts towards design solutions that serve learners best. Note that just as we hope SMEs are open-minded towards our ideas, we should also be open-minded towards their input in the design process.
The commitment and time challenge
SMEs of a learning project often come from a different department or organisation. They are busy with their job outside the project and participating in the project is often considered a non-core task for them. When SMEs are not allocated sufficient time for the project tasks, the learning project then becomes a burden and understandably, they cannot commit fully and dedicate enough time to it. Missing deadlines then become the norm if this challenge is not addressed at the root cause. This challenge normally shows itself early on in a project timeline, when little content is available and SMEs need to provide substantial raw content.
To address this challenge, you need to actively engage in managing stakeholders who can raise the learning project’s priority for the SMEs and reduce the workload from their normal daily job to give them adequate time for the learning project. Just hoping that your SMEs will be able to magically squeeze in the learning project tasks somewhere will not work. Even when they can stretch themselves and provide a deliverable on time here and there, the quality of the deliverable will likely suffer.
The communication challenge
In many cases, you and the SMEs come from different professional backgrounds, so it is not easy for you both to understand each other’s professional worlds and perspectives. When the SMEs talk about things that you are unfamiliar with and when you talk about “learning” things that seem foreign to the SMEs, it takes effort to communicate well to arrive at a common understanding. When you do not have a common understanding, it is natural that the SMEs can be resistant to your ideas and you to theirs. You can also unconsciously make a lot of assumptions about each other’s ideas or statements. And that can cause misunderstanding and conflicts in your partnership.
To address this challenge, try to get to know about the SMEs’ field as much as possible. This will help you ask them good questions. In addition, when you first meet, you need to explain in a non-jargon way your role in the learning project so the SMEs can understand where you come from.
Since in many projects, working with SMEs is a repeated cycle of preparing for a meeting with SMEs, meeting with SMEs, and post-meeting work including following up with SMEs, I organise these tips into three sections accordingly: Prepare for a meeting, In a meeting, and After a meeting. A separate section is dedicated to communication with SMEs, which is essential to all stages of the cycle.
Prepare for a Meeting with SMEs
Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.
– Alexander Graham Bell
This section’s key point is to do your homework before coming to a meeting with SMEs. Respect their time by coming to each meeting prepared. If you come unprepared, opportunities will be missed, and there is a high chance that your meeting will be unproductive. There are many things you need to do to prepare for a project meeting. I will highlight here only the ones that are highly advantageous to working with SMEs.
Understanding the subject matter
Before your first meeting with the SMEs, you should aim to have an initial understanding of the subject matter by strategically reading and familiarising yourself with the provided content/relevant resources (if any) or doing your own research. Having an overview understanding of the subject matter is very helpful when you talk to the SMEs or when you design the course. Note that making efforts to understand the content does not mean that you will design a content-centred learning solution (not what we want, but that is the topic for another time).
So what do I mean about strategically reading the content?
- Note down questions about the content as you read. As you do it, mark which questions are general, and which questions are specific, drilling down into the minute details of the content. Depending on your agenda for the meeting, you can decide if you want to get both general and specific questions answered or go through just the general level questions in the first meeting and leave the specific level questions for future meetings when you go deeper into the design of the course.
- Don’t read everything if you have a lot of content. If you design for a longer course, e.g. a semester-long university course, or have a lot of content, you will unlikely have the time to read all the content for this course. Unless you have so much time to spend, don’t try to set the unrealistic goal of reading everything, as you want to spend some time on strategic planning. So how should you read in this case? Read a manageable part of the content thoroughly. You can even ask the SME for what you should read if you want to read something that is representative of the content in terms of its characteristics and difficulty level. Skim through the rest of the content to see if you can detect anything to note or make questions about.
- Understand the nature of the content. It is important to know the characteristics of the field the content belongs to, the type of content, the level of complexity, the learning objectives of the course as these should influence how you design the course. There are different ways to categorise the content. An example comes from Smith and Ragan (2005)’s eight types of learning: declarative knowledge, concepts, procedures, principles, problem-solving, cognitive strategies, attitudes, and psychomotor skills. Try to experience with different content taxonomies to see what work best for you and your project.
- Identify any patterns you can find in the existing content.
If you do not have any content, it is worthwhile to search the internet to learn more about the topic that you will be working with and note down your thoughts on the nature of the content and any questions you have for the SMEs so that you can acquire the content you need.
Prepare an agenda for each meeting with your SMEs so that the meeting time can be utilised effectively. You may note that SMEs can go off tangent or talk nonstop about a specific topic, some more than others, so having an agenda will keep everyone on track and help make the session productive for everyone. If possible, rate the priority of each agenda item to make sure you leave enough time for the most important tasks.
Have your questions ready before the meeting and categorise these questions per agenda item.
Projects guidelines, process, roles and responsibilities
Recall the challenges talked about in the previous session. Be ready to talk about projects guidelines, project schedules, course development process, learning objectives, and roles and responsibilities with your SMEs in the first meeting. This will help you with addressing all three challenges talked about in the previous section: the mindset challenge, the commitment and time challenge, and the communication challenge. You do not need to have everything finalised but be prepared to have a draft so that both parties can discuss and finalise together. Get the SMEs agreement on these guidelines, roles and responsibilities.
The working guidelines should have clear roles, responsibilities, expectations, deadlines and feedback cycles. SMEs are more concerned with when they need to do something so provide a simplified version of the project schedule with their tasks and corresponding deadlines highlighted.
- Adress the commitment and time challenge early. As you go through the project schedule, identify any potential issues with the SMEs in terms of the commitment and time challenge. Then, you can address any issues from very early on. For example, if the SME shows concern that they are too busy and may not be able to meet certain deadlines, you then need to adjust the project schedule to fit with their capacity or think about how you can help them have more time to work on the learning project. One way is talking with their manager or a relevant stakeholder about reducing their current workload. Another way is to ask the business or the organisation for more SME resources or more assistance for the SMEs.
- Have project guidelines, roles and responsibilities agreed upon from the beginning. This will set clear expectations for everyone from the start. For some SMEs, it might be their first time working with a learning designer or a learning team, and they may not know what a learning designer does. So explain what you do to contribute to the project is important.
- Explain the big picture. Explain the course development process to the SMEs so they can see the big picture and where each role fits in. It is also important for them to know the context and the why of the project if they have not already.
- Discuss each person’s roles and responsibilities. Make sure that the SMEs knows the full extent of their roles and responsibilities (e.g. how detailed the content they provide should be), so they can evaluate whether they have enough capacity to complete their assigned tasks. Preparing content is a time-consuming task, and we can’t just simply hope that the SME somehow will have enough time for it.
What to start a meeting with
Think carefully about the purpose of a meeting. That will help you determine how you should start the meeting.
If you want to gather new ideas and not bias others with existing content and ideas at all, you may want to start the meeting with a blank screen. This may help people think out of the box more.
If you want to gather feedback or extend a design concept, you may prefer to start with some existing ideas and materials. This will help prompt questions, ideas, and comments to further the conversation. Starting with a design concept is also helpful when the meeting time is short. People in general understanding certain things faster with visuals, so preparing some initial concept maps or pictures of the content or design ideas may be helpful in explaining your ideas and generating discussion and feedback.
If possible, avoid using existing PowerPoint (PPT) content slides to drive the discussion of design solutions. When PPT slides dominate the conversation, it is harder for SMEs to imagine an alternative approach to the PPT format and the way the content presented in that format.
Make sure you have all the materials you need for the meeting. Depending on the purpose of the meeting, booking a room with a whiteboard and/or a projector might be helpful.
Below is a list of recommended items for explaining, capturing ideas or generating ideas. You may not need all of these. And if you do not have these, you can always use pens and paper!
- Any helpful printouts
- A laptop that can project on a bigger overhead screen
- Post-it notes (different sizes)
- A flip chart
- Index cards
- Permanent markers and erasable markers in several colours.
- Pencils and pens
In a Meeting
Opportunities present themselves everyday – to everyone. You just have to be alert and ready to act.
– Marc Ostrofsky
There are different types of meetings with SMEs. A meeting can also be a combination of these types. During the meeting, be mindful of the key challenges (mindset, commitment and time, communication), so you do not miss opportunities to address them. Listen, listen and listen, and you’ll find many opportunities to address those challenge. It is an ongoing process.
- The initial meeting: This is when you, the SMEs and possibly other people in the project team meet for the first time to discuss project goals, guidelines, schedules, processes, roles and responsibilities. Set the project on a good start. Aim to address as much as you can the stated challenges.
- Content meeting: This is a meeting for you to learn about the content. This is your opportunity to learn from the expert. Listen carefully; you may even want to ask for their permission to record the meeting so you can go back and listen again. Don’t hesitate to ask questions to know more or to confirm your understanding. SMEs are often very excited to share their knowledge and expertise.
- Design workshop: This is a meeting or work session for you to discuss and work out design approaches. This could be when you propose an initial or revised design and get feedback or a collaborative design session where you brainstorm the design while getting input and ideas from the expert. Note that the more involved an SME is with the design, the more committed and engaged they will be to the project.
- Work or follow up session: This is a session where you work together on details of any areas that need attention. This can happen in multiple sessions.
- Demo and feedback meeting: You can present a design, a prototype, a script, or a final draft to get feedback.
- The evaluation meeting: After a project is finished, you would want to conduct an evaluation meeting or a post-project meeting to evaluate the process and the product evaluation results, to identify successes, things to improve, and lessons learned. Be open to feedback from the SMEs, and you will gain a lot of valuable insights for future projects.
People understand things better with visuals. Draw things out in a map. Draw a content map. Draw the flow of your design. Draw processes.
Always listen and ask questions to confirm your understanding.
Write down major themes and ideas on large papers and stick them around the room so that everyone can see and keep these in mind as seeds to grow more ideas.
At the end of a meeting, summarise key decisions taken during the meeting and talk about next steps. This keeps the energy and productivity of the meeting to continue.
Be prepared to ask questions related to anecdotes, case studies, and nuances of the subject.
After a Meeting
We learn by reflecting on what has happened.
– Charles Handy
After a meeting, having clear steps moving forward for everyone and keeping everyone in the loop are essential.
It is important that you maintain the communication flow after a meeting. Send out an email to summarise decisions and required actions at the end of the meeting, so everyone has a record of the meeting, is on the same page and have clear ideas of what is going on and what is next.
If appropriate, follow up in between to make sure things are on track, keep the SMEs updated on your progress, and ask if they have questions or face any challenges on their part. Don’t just let things go in the midst of your hectic schedules. Taking a few minutes to check in with them here and there can go a long way! Sometimes, SMEs could just assume things even when they have questions, so checking in with them could make the whole process more productive. Quick phone calls may help SMEs get unstuck and move forwards much faster.
Establish Working Relationships
Coming together is a beginning;
Keeping together is progress;
Working together is success;
– Henry Ford
Throughout your career, you will work with many SMEs. They will have different levels of commitment and interest in your project, different working styles, and different abilities and capacity. You want to empower, motivate and engage SMEs right from the beginning. Here are some additional tips that you can apply at any stage of working with SMEs to establish and maintain a productive working relationship with them.
- Show that you are credible. Many people find our role mysterious and unfamiliar, especially first time SMEs. I have met first time SMEs who don’t really know what our role is and what we can contribute and thus understandably do not see the need for our role. This is common, and we need to explain our role as well as demonstrate how we can bring value to the project and to their work.
- Give SMEs clear instructions on what they need to do. For example, with respect to how SMEs should provide content, it is important to communicate clearly your expectations. You will quickly find sourcing content for a course that has absolutely no content is a challenging project in itself. Check with the SMEs if they have any questions or need any assistance or additional information. Your specifications may include answers to questions such as:
- Are you going to write down content while the SME verbally explains things to you? If that is the case, bringing a recorder and asking for their permission to record what they say might be helpful. You can then focus on asking the right questions and taking notes of key ideas.
- What is the level of details of the content SMEs need to provide?
- Are they going to provide content in a detailed form (e.g. in full paragraphs)?
- Are they going to provide content in an outline form (e.g. only main ideas)
- What is the format of the raw content SMEs need to provide?
- Is it a Word document, a PDF, a PowerPoint, etc.?
- Do SMEs need to provide any images and figures (e.g. technical images and figures)?
- Have open and frequent communication:
- Keep SMEs updated frequently on what you are doing. Don’t disappear on them even when they do that to you. In some projects, you might have minimal involvement with SMEs due to the nature of the project; the key thing is to keep the SMEs updated regularly.
- Check-in frequently with them to see if they need any assistance or have any difficulty to complete their tasks. Don’t overdo it though. Otherwise, you might annoy them! You will know the right frequency as you work with them.
- Invite them to your meetings where possible/applicable.
- Listen actively for their needs and their input.
- Maintain a two-way feedback channel.
- Show appreciation to SMEs. Show appreciation and respect for what they do and acknowledge their efforts not only between the two of you but also in an email to the project team or in a meeting with the project team.
- Send SMEs feedback on their work. Be thoughtful when wording/giving your feedback.
- Have an open mind and welcome feedback when working with SMEs. You will find gems in their ideas and feedback.
- Involve SMEs. Involve SMEs in the project as much as possible, ask for their input in your design solutions.
- Have proof of sign-off. Have a sign-off document or email (depending on the working environment) at each stage of the project as major changes at the later of stages can threaten the project timeline and resources.
- Set realistic schedules. Set realistic schedules for SMEs and for you too!
I hope this guide provides you with a few tips in your process working with SMEs. If I can sum up a few key takeaways, they are:
- communicate clearly and regularly
- be realistic with your timeframe
- address any risks identified as soon as possible
- be respectful of SMEs’ time and expertise
- get SMEs involved in your project as much as you can.
Smith, P. L., & Ragan, T. J. (2005). Instructional Design. 3rd ed. John Wiley & Sons.