Working with SME’s

I had a realization a few months back, that I was a SME working with SME’s. As an instructional designer, I’m often asked to create learning material about subjects that I know nothing about.  Just recently, I completed some instructional videos about how to anesthetize rodents. Gross. But that’s my job- to help subject matter experts who know everything about something, teach something to everyone else. In other words, I’m a learning strategy subject matter expert.

Working with SME’s like myself can be challenging. Some of the biggest challenges include:

1. We know too much: we’ve often spent years studying and practicing our craft to the point that we are aware of every possible scenario, exception, or other minute detail of our job For someone to come along and try to widdle it down into a 30 minute tutorial seems at best inaccurate and at worst demeaning to our craft.

2. We’ve got day jobs: I’d love to personally hold the hand of every aspiring trainer and teach them what I know but I have daily responsibilities to my managers, coworkers and customers that take up most of my time. If I schedule more than once week, my other duties suffer. If I schedule less than once a week, the project could take months to complete.

3. We disagree: Even the best of SME’s can find differences. In my own career, the question of audio narration in e-learning is something that very smart have very differing opinions about.

So what to do? Here are some suggestions to consider when working with those difficult SME’s

1.We know too much?

Set clear goals for the course. Is it a compliance course with the goal of getting 100% completion or preferably, are we really trying to change behavior . In other words, ask, how important is this course?

Define learner actions.  Consider scenarios where learners will need to use what they’ve learned in the real world.

Only offer learners enough information  to complete activities. Non memorized material can be found on a job aid.

2. We’ve got day jobs

Use project management skills of defining a clear tasks for participants along with time commitments, deliverables and project end dates.

Use tools like wikis, conference/web sharing, or social media encourage remote collaboration.

Find the right SME. Directors, managers may not always be the best source. Qualified recent learners or other employees may have a fresh perspective and more time to offer.
Circumvent the SME. Use books, recent learners, other instructors, or any source that can provide you the information you need when you need it.

3. We disagree

Focus on areas of agreement and don’t’ get bogged down on details of disagreement.

Include  a process by which final decisions are made. either a vote or someone who will have final decision ability.

Other resources for dealing with SME’s

The SME Test by Norman Lamont :

Subject Matter Egomaniacs by Donald Clark :

Strategies for Optimal SME Engagement by Dean Hawkinson:

Active E-Learning by Cathy Moore :