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Taming Your SMEs: How to Work with Subject Matter Experts

Published: Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Updated: Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Working with subject matter experts (SMEs) is sometimes a challenging undertaking, especially if your SME has never been a part of a learning project. Despite what many instructional designers think, SMEs aren't wild little mythical creatures lurking in the shadows waiting to pounce on your project. SMEs, in most cases, are the field experts, the Einstein's on campus, the gatekeepers of knowledge, and yes, they know where all the bodies are buried. As an instructional designer, you're like Frodo in search of the ring, or better yet, Vinz Clortho, the key master from Ghostbusters. In either case, your goal is to unlock the vault and get the knowledge you need. However, tackling this task without a plan is more arduous than breaking-up an adult fight at Chuck E. Cheese. 

As you begin your quest, you'll need a game plan with clearly defined objectives, roles and responsibilities, deadlines, and deliverables. For argument's sake, let's call this game plan a design document. Armed with a design document and a guiding light (your mantra), you will go out into the vast wilderness to capture and tame an SME. 

 Your Mantra

"Oh wise and powerful gatekeeper of knowledge, I realize that I am a mere mortal unworthy of browsing the files in your hard drive; but can you be so kind to bestow upon me, a few nuggets of wisdom?"

Your Warning

If you've been developing courses for more than a week, you've probably worked with an SME, or perhaps you've even served as an SME on your own project. In any case, SMEs are an integral part of the Analyze and Design phases of ADDIE (yeah, I know everyone hates ADDIE, yikes!). If you're fortunate, you've worked with SMEs that have experience working with instructional designers or understand what goes into building a course. If you're not so blessed, you may have worked with untamed SMEs. Untamed SMEs overreach, under-perform, know-it-all, miss deadlines, and fail to deliver content that aligns with the learning outcomes. Yes, my friend, the legends are correct, there are wild SMEs among us, and given a chance they will try to stuff 30 pounds of content into your 3-pound bag. 

If the latter has been your experience, I suggest finding another job. No really, fire-up your resume and abandon ship! But if you're feeling brave and you're wearing your big boy/girl pants, then here are a few tips you can use to tame your wild SMEs. 

Level Setting

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The Subject Matter Expert is a valuable member of your team, and you should treat them with respect, which sometimes requires you to stroke an ego or two. It is important to note that SMEs are generally experts in their fields of study and not experts in teaching and learning. Likewise, SMEs have spent their entire careers mastering a subject. They have a wealth of knowledge to impart, but sometimes SMEs want to include everything they know into your course – this is overkill and causes scope creep. No one likes a creepy scope, so be sure that the SME is aware of the project goals and learning outcomes. Equally, you must be very clear on what role your SME will play, how their contribution fits into the bigger picture, and what duties they will perform. Lastly, they MUST commit to their deadlines and deliverables! As a precaution, I like to pad the deadlines, in case something goes awry. You never know if you're going to have to rework their content, so give yourself some breathing room. 

SME Lives Matter

Remember, you don't own your SME. He/she is a loaner, so handle with care. Quite often, your borrowed SME is simultaneously juggling their workload and your project or temporarily assigned to your team. As the instructional designer managing the project, you need to be mindful of their bandwidth, their process, and their input. Remember, as field experts, they may have been away from the action for a long time and don't have a full grasp of current best practices, technology, or information. To avoid receiving outdated information and advice, be sure to cross-reference their content, ideas, and suggestions. To cover my assets, I usually consult with a few of the people who are currently doing the job or research best industry practices. 

SME Wrangling

Not all SMEs are trained (organized), so to circumvent receiving content written on Starbucks napkins, provide your SME with templates and documents at the onset of the project. Failing to give your SMEs direction and documentation is a disaster in the makings. Be clear on how they should deliver the course content, or you will receive a hodgepodge of formats. As a professional instructional designer, you should know better. But if you don't, I encourage you to use your design document for its intended purpose; documenting your design process! Don't make your SMEs do the heavy lifting; the only thing they should focus on is filling in the content boxes in your document, uploading course content to a shared drive, and giving you timely feedback.

Avoiding a SME-off

You're probably wondering, "what the hell is this guy talking about, SME-off?" Well, if you've been unlucky enough to work with a herd of SMEs (3 or more in number), you understand this pain point. Watching experts trying to out-think and over talk one another is soul-crushing! SME-offs are sad to watch, but somehow, you can't look away. As the adult in the room, you must play kindergarten cop and calm them with juice boxes and animal crackers. No seriously, try to imagine designing a course with SMEs from different regions, campuses, or cohorts. Everybody is an expert, so there will be a lot of conflicting goals, ideas, and standards of performance. As the referee, you must help them cut through the clutter, stop the grandstanding and finger-pointing, and tease out what you need to complete your project. 

After all, most of them are saying the same thing, but some SMEs want to play GOD. I know of instructional designers that worked with 10 or more SMEs on one course. How do you think that turned out? Ka-boom! And just like smoking a cigar made out of dynamite, it blew up in their face. As a result, there were 16-plus iterations of the course. I happen to love myself more than that; therefore, I have a three SME limit. Anything more than three SMEs is asking for trouble, and keeping my sanity is important to me.

SME Grooming

When I've found myself working with more than three SMEs, I immediately push back and get them to self-govern and organize. I encourage them to form subgroups, elect group leaders, and decide what content to include in the course. During the project kick-off call, I schedule a follow-up whiteboarding session where I scaffold a process for prioritizing content. In this process, we create two imaginary content buckets labeled, "need to have" and "nice to have." 

Once each team has filled both buckets, they compare notes, eliminate the unnecessary, and align the content to the learning objectives. The guiding principle for this session is instructional alignment to outcomes. If the content doesn't support the learning objectives and it isn't going to be measured, then it shouldn't be in the course. Once the SMEs begin to wrap their minds around this concept, they feel empowered to continue without me, and my life becomes a bit easier. 

SME Love

Not all SMEs are created equal; there are great ones, good ones, and bad ones. When you encounter an SME that is change-resistant, old school, and detrimental to your workflow, don't panic! There's no need to write them off; tame them instead. SME domestication begins with a little love, kindness, and respect. They are the subject matter expert, and you are not. Don't tell them their way is not the best; show them using data and examples of best practice. Building a strong partnership requires trust and communication. A good SME is worth his or her weight in gold (or bitcoin), so create an environment of inclusion and transparency. Let your SME know that their contributions have value. I urge you to set up check-in calls or emails throughout the project lifecycle. Brief check-ins will keep them in the loop and build rapport.

Show your SMEs love by personally and publicly acknowledging their contributions, even if they weren't so impressive. After all, you might end up working with the same SME on future projects, so having a good working relationship is a must!

About the Author

Aaron King is an Instructional Designer and e-learning developer in the Performance and Development Center of JM&A Group a business unit of JM Family Enterprises, Inc.

In addition, he is a professor Media Arts, and a learning & development consultant leveraging a wide variety of disciplines including adaptive learning, personalized learning, microlearning, and gamification to optimize learning experiences for adult learners.

He is a doctoral candidate in Education – Specialization in Personalized and Competency Based Instruction. He holds master’s degrees in Education, Media, Design & Technology, and Instructional Design & Technology with specializations in adult learning and organizational learning.

Prior to his current roles, he worked as a senior executive in OPM (Outsourced Program Management) higher education management, a multi-platinum music producer, music business book author, and a US Army combat medic. His mission is to impact measurable and sustainable change through disruptive innovation and learner empowerment.

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