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Insights

We Can All Learn From SMEs’ Assumptions

Thursday, July 2, 2020
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Not many learning professionals have the skills and credentials to be clinicians. Fortunately, we do not need to have their skills or credentials. We just need to borrow clinicians’ expertise. Thus, the partnership between the learning professional and the subject matter expert (SME) begins.

This partnership serves both parties well. Clinicians provide learning designers and facilitators with industry-specific knowledge; learning professionals provide clinicians a way to communicate that knowledge.

But as with any partnership, there are difficulties.

The clinicians' common complaints involve L&D’s obsession with discovery questions, a desire to align content to learning objectives, and a penchant for debating whether something is a training problem. Meanwhile, a chief complaint L&D folks have with SMEs is that experts have forgotten what it was like to be new at something. This tendency is not uncommon among people who have studied something for an extended period. As a result, whenever a SME creates a learning event on their own, the learners tend to feel as though they are walking into the middle of a conversation.

Often when SMEs begin to teach, they make assumptions about what is obvious and known to their audience. This can cause difficulty with comprehension when their assumptions are incorrect. Learning professionals are quick to point out this pitfall. We sometimes even find ourselves rushing to quote John Medina with a barely hidden amount of enthusiasm when we say, "What is obvious to you, is obvious to you."

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But our dismissal of SMEs’ assumptions is our own flaw. There are times when these assumptions can reveal valuable insights to the learning professional who is able look beyond the flaw and see what the assumption illuminates.

Consider this quote from a registered nurse from Michigan: “Ironically, the courses that tend to be more relevant to my day-to-day work tend to be much shorter than the courses that have little to do with me.” When asked to elaborate on her statement, this medical professional revealed that many of the most relevant courses she encountered were developed with input from subject matter experts who do work similar to the activities performed in her unit.

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These SMEs attempted to teach with assumptions. One such assumption is how much time their audience would have available to receive their message. These experts probably didn't even realize they were making this decision; they just assumed it was obvious. SMEs often live in the same environment as the learners they want to reach. They understand that the nurse from Michigan will be interrupted by a colleague within 10 minutes of beginning the course. They inherently realize the need to get to the point as quickly as possible or they will miss the opportunity altogether.

If we study SMEs’ learning efforts, we will be able to identify flaws and assumptions. However, if we can determine the rationale for each assumption, we may be able to gain information that will allow us to remove frustrating barriers from our own work.

Assumptions can provide value if properly studied.

About the Author

Brett Radlicki is a talent development professional at Trinity Health where he serves as the Manager of Multimedia Learning Solutions. Over his twenty year career he has helped organizations develop employees and improve results. His work has appeared in many publications and his interactive installations can be seen in museums, factories, and zoos across the United States. Brett has received Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning Awards, Horizon Interactive Awards, Magellan Awards for Top Communications Campaigns, an Award of Distinction from the Academy of Interactive and Visual Arts, and the HealthStream Excellence Through Innovation award. He holds a BFA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Davenport University.

1 Comment
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It is a powerful combo when we get it right. Thanks for this perspective on differing assumptions.
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