How to Dig in the SME Goldmine: Working with a Subject Matter Expert

 

Speaker giving talk on podium at Business Conference. Business and Entrepreneurship. Expert presenting his work in lectures hall.

This is Dr. SME, the Subject Matter Expert for your course. He has a 900 slide Powerpoint on atom splitting that he’s very attached to. It’s his life’s work, actually. You’re going to use it as basis for your course. If you cut anything out, you’ll be sorry. So, so sorry.

Wait! Don’t run away.

A Subject Matter Expert like Dr. SME can be a goldmine of useful information and resources for your course. But like in all mining operations, you’ve got to have a plan. You have to deliver a course that meets the learners’ needs. Dr. SME can help you do that, but only if you partner with him. Here’s how to foster a good relationship with an SME so you can strike gold.

 

Respect– All good relationships start with respect. Respect an SME’s knowledge and involve them from the beginning of the project. You should meet with an SME early on to discuss the course. Stay on their good side. Don’t show off your knowledge of educational theory, technical wizardry, or use too much Instructional Design jargon. Your goal at this meeting is to show how your training will add value and help the learner. Getting an SME to like you and care about your project will make everything that follows much easier.

As the project continues, make the SME feel like a valued team member. This is especially important if the SME was assigned to your project rather than volunteered for it. If the SME hasn’t chosen to be part of your project he will be less vested in its success than an SME who wants to be actively involved. You can motivate less-than-eager SMEs by making them feel their contributions are valued. Send a glowing email to your SME’s supervisor. Frequently express your sincere appreciation for your SME’s input.

 

Communication– Regular communication with the SME will keep the project running smoothly. Check in with the SME periodically to keep him involved.

It’s helpful if you and the SME exchange a dictionary of regularly used acronyms or field-specific expressions. You’ll appreciate this if the SME’s subject area is highly technical. The SME will also appreciate knowing the meanings of common Instructional Design buzzwords. It’ll make communication much easier if you both have agreed upon definitions for your field-specific lingo.

 

Collaboration– Work with an SME to determine the course’s goals and structure. Remember Dr. SME’s 900 slide Powerpoint? Like many SMEs, Dr. SME has worked hard on the material and is proud of it. But a since an interactive, learner-centric course can’t include every detail of Dr. SME’s material, help Dr. SME divide the information into three categories: “Vital to Know,” “Good to Know,” and “Nice to Know.”

This allows you to focus your course around key information and will prevent the course from getting bogged down. If your SME won’t let go of the “Nice to Know” information, you can add a separate Resources section, which prevents hurt feelings and keeps your course streamlined.

Lastly, get your SMEs’ input when designing activities for your course. Explain that you need activities beyond quizzes and fact-checking to assess learner understanding. You can draw on your SME’s wealth of experience by asking questions such as:

What kinds of mistakes do new people make?

What kinds of mistakes do people make when they’re careless or overconfident?

If someone doesn’t know this information what could potentially go wrong?

These sorts of questions will help focus your SME on the “Vital to Know” information, and give you excellent ideas for scenarios and activities.

 

Dealing with SMEs can be tricky. You don’t want your project to turn into a cave-in or landslide. Alienate an SME and you’ve lost one of your best partners on this expedition. Keep your SME at one side and your best instructional design practices at the other, and your course will strike gold.

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