Subject matter experts (SMEs) are amazing assets. They bring in-depth knowledge and insights to learning products. Without them, it would be near impossible to create relevant, accurate content.
But on many projects, SMEs become bottlenecks, even points of failure.
They keep the project from running efficiently and effectively.
And often, it's because they're unprepared for the role.
Whether you're a SME or working with them, this blog post will help set you up for success.
First thing's first, if you are working with SMEs, you will be responsible for onboarding them. The areas below reflect the basic content you will need to cover.
If you are the SME, then use this guide as a jump-off point to refine these skills. Let the creative team know these are the areas in which you'll need guidance.
The stronger the working relationship between the SME and the ID, the better the final product will be.
Working with a creative team is a new skillset for most SMEs. You'll need to learn a bit about creative culture and team structure.
Each creative team is assembled differently. Find out who will be on yours. Will there be learning experience designers, graphic designers, video editors, project managers? Will it be a team of one?
Then, recognize that creative work is part art, part science and often messy while still having to meet strict deadlines. Creatives are trying to meet the needs of users and stakeholders while navigating multiple rounds of feedback from multiple sources.
In our case, there will be a point at which you work with a learning expert (I'll call them the Instructional Designer, or ID, for now).
As the SME provides expertise on the subject, the ID transforms it into learning experiences. This may include digital courses, instructor led training (ILT), virtual instructor-led training (vILT), social learning, game based learning, structured on the job training (OJT), blended learning, or other solutions that are context appropriate.
The most important thing for you to remember: creating learning products is a collaborative process that requires many conversations and formal feedback cycles.
Communication is a critical component for success on any kind of project-- a learning project is no different.
Share your preferences and learn the creative team's.
Identify points of contact.
What's the best way to reach one another?
What times/days are best for communication?
How do you want to tackle questions-- as they come, all at once?
Will there be a regular meeting cadence?
And if you don't hear from someone, follow up! Sometimes, emails get lost.
You'll need to know what it takes to make the final product. Ask:
What are you building?
What is the purpose of and scope of the project?
What does project success look like?
What's the budget?
What's the schedule?
The Production Process
This is the part that trips most SMEs up. They don't realize how much work goes into creating quality content because end products may seem short or simple.
But before you get this well-designed piece of learning content or engaging learning experience, there's a lot of work that happens behind the scenes. And you will be playing a big role in it.
Every creative team has their own process, even within the more narrow field of learning design. You'll want to get acquainted with it.
Talk to your creative team about the following:
What does the production process look like?
What are the hand off points?
How many individuals are involved?
How many review cycles are there?
What are the big project milestones?
For Your Instructional Designer, some of our projects have literally hundreds of subtasks, and when we start missing deadlines, it disrupts our ability to deliver quality work on time.
So get familiar with how things work and how much is involved. Identify the make it or break it parts of the cycle.
Ask the the creative team what you would be looking for when reviewing and how long you will have to turn over your reviews once you receive content. And keep in mind that reviewing multimedia can feel different than reviewing a typical text document and have different requirements.
For example, during the "data dump" phase, here at Your ID, we ask for insights about:
points of confusion / challenging to learn
compelling stories from their own experience
During content reviews, we tell our SMEs to look for:
gaps in the content
If we're producing visuals, SMEs may also be asked to review style guides or storyboards for style and visual accuracy (e.g., does this part of the Aircraft Powerplant go here?). And most importantly, they may be asked to provide reference images that help us understand their vision.
There are other parts of the process and types of reviews that may be involved, as well. find out what they are, so you can provide what's required for the project to be successful.
Regardless of the type of review, if there are multiple SMEs on a project, appoint one as the lead SME. They can be a tiebreaker when SMEs don't agree.
You'll also want to consolidate feedback into one place. Having SMEs review separately and all hand in their notes means the ID will have to make decisions about whose perspectives should be included without having the expertise to do so.
Be specific in your feedback, rather than throwing out "things to think about". Saying "change the red button to blue" is different than saying "maybe we could make this a different color." Remember, the creative team may not have any experience in your field.
That said, if you feel there needs to be a big high level change-- for example, the focus of the content is wrong-- don't worry about detailing all the line-level edits. Just kick it back with some specific guidance about what you're looking for instead.
Finally, find out HOW you'll leave your notes. Is there specific software you should use? Are there rules about what goes in a comment vs. tracking changes in a document?
Learning Theories & Learning Science
Sometimes, your vision of what should be done to create the learning experience may be challenged. In these cases, ask yourself "Does what I'm proposing help the learner to meet the parameters for project success?"
IDs pull from learning theories and learning science to create experiences. What we've learned through years of research sometimes runs counter to what we've experienced as education in school and other job training experiences.
For example, many new subject matter experts worry about not giving learners enough information. They try to squeeze in all of the amazing things they've learned over the years, so that learners have access to the knowledge. But in a course, this extra information can lead to cognitive overload. It may be quickly forgotten in light of more important concepts. And in the worst case, it may can obscure what's actually important to remember versus what's good to know, meaning the learner fails to leave knowing what they need to know.
If you're questioning a choice, ask the learning designer (or other creative) to explain the rationale behind the decision. Then, work together to decide if you've taken the best approach.
Acknowledgement & Accountability
Being a SME is a tough job. You will be inundated with content to review and questions, especially if you're working on skills-based content that can't be derived from documentation alone.
Don't ghost your creative team if you're overwhelmed. Reach out and work together to set reasonable deadlines.
And if they're still impossible given your workload, talk to your supervisor about how to balance your typical responsibilities with your new training-related responsibilities. If you are the top dog, then you'll need to be realistic about the demands on your time and determine your priorities.
On the flip side, acknowledge that you are human and the team is human. Small mistakes and missed deadlines are bound to happen over the course of the project. When these happen, focus on the remedy rather than blame.
Take time to acknowledge outstanding work your creative team accomplishes, and hopefully, they will do the same to recognize your wonderful contributions.
And when it's all done, celebrate the victory!
For Our Learning Design Friends
For those of you who will be working with SMEs directly, consider your SME onboarding and/or client education programming.
At Your ID, we offer guidance through documentation, including an SME Handbook, project management and collaboration tools, and-- most importantly-- a well-planned kickoff meeting.
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