20 Helpful Tips For Working With Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

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Working with subject matter experts (SMEs) is an important part of being an instructional designer. A SME is someone who is an expert in their domain, role, or job; you’ll likely have to work with one at some point in your training career.

You’ll meet with your SME to identify learning objectives, gather source content, and more. Some SMEs are friendly, knowledgeable, and keen to participate; they are more than willing to spend time with you and help you out. In other instances, you might be confronted with a know-it-all SME that you don’t really enjoy working with. Regardless of personality, it’s important to have a good relationship with your SMEs, because they are critical to the success of your instructional design projects.

Here are 20 tips to follow to build a strong relationship with your SMEs and get the most out of your time with them.

Introduce Yourself

It’s always polite to introduce yourself to your SME. This can be done in an email, a phone call or a face-to-face visit, depending on the project. You want to let your SME know who you are, what your role is, and that you look forward to working with them. Building a good relationship with your SME will go a long way in helping you get the time and information you need from them.

Get Management Buy-In

Management’s level of buy-in is a crucial factor. If possible, you want to get management to commit the SME to a certain amount of hours working on the training project. This will help reduce the SME’s stress when they have to be away from their regular duties that still need to get done.

Respect Their Profession

Whether it’s a secretary, a data entry clerk, a doctor, or a line cook, it is important to be respectful of what someone does for a living. Every job deserves respect. and there are subject matter experts in every industry and every domain.

Do Your Homework

Gather as much information about the subject as you can prior to meeting with your SME. Going into the meeting with a baseline of knowledge demonstrates that you are interested in learning and value their time.

Be Friendly

This is a straight-forward and simple enough tip, but don’t underestimate how critical the SME is to the overall success of your project. If you are friendly, kind, and conversational with them they are more willing to help you out and give you the time of the day.

Use Plain Language

When you meet with your SMEs, avoid using complicated training terminology or learning jargon. Don’t toss around terms like ADDIE model, Blooms Taxonomy, or Kirkpatrick Levels of Evaluation. These words most likely means nothing to your subject matter expert.

Don’t Waste Time

Ensure the time you spend with a SME is valuable and well-spent. Be on time for meetings and be considerate of their other work obligations such as meetings and other deadlines they may have. If you know Monday is the busiest day of the week for your SME, be considerate and book meetings on other days if possible.

Schedule Short Meetings

This is especially important when the SME is not officially a part of a project, for example, the SME is being told to help out but still has to do all his/her regular duties. It is considerate to check with him or her before scheduling a meeting that will be more than an hour long.

Plan Your Meetings

Before going into a meeting with a SME, have a plan prepared for what you want to cover and how you want to use your time. Make sure you prioritize what is most important and cover that material first.

Ask The Right Questions

Write out a list of relevant and thoughtful questions that you want to cover with your SME ahead of time. If more questions come up as they are talking or explaining, write them down so you don’t forget.

Provide Questions Beforehand

In addition to writing out a list of questions in advance, consider providing the list of to your SME a day or two before your meeting. This gives them time to think about what you want to cover and will allow them to prepare their answers and determine what they need to share with you.

Identify Realistic Scenarios

Using scenarios in e-learning is a great way to bring your content to life and create meaningful engagement for your learners. Ask your SMEs questions like “In what type of situation will learners use this information?” If you can, get your SME to provide you with at least 2 or 3 examples of scenarios, that are relevant to the subject matter at hand.

Ask for Demonstrations

Often it’s helpful to see a task instead of just hearing it described step-by-step. Especially when it comes to software or application training, it’s important for your SME to actually walk you through the steps. This ensures the steps are accurate, and it might lead to questions that you need to ask them.

Keep It Simple

SMEs will sometimes go off into deep explanations, or use big words, that aren’t really required. Keep them on track and stick to only what is relevant to your learners.

Show Examples

Show your SME some examples of e-learning courses that are similar in terms of content and engagement as to what you’re trying to achieve. Whether you need to create a step-by-step job-aid document or an interactive e-learning module with scenarios, this helps ensure you and your SME are on the same page about what the end result should be.

Record Meetings

You can use a small recorder that you can buy for cheap to record in person meetings in a meeting room. If you’re doing anything on a computer with your SME, such as walking through the steps of a process in an application, make sure to use a screen recording tool to capture everything on video.

Keep Management Involved

CC them on any appropriate communications with SMEs and keep an accurate record of tasks completed by SMEs.

Define Tasks Clearly

If there are specific action items for the SME to complete, lay it out for them clearly in an email, with a timeline. CC appropriate individuals.

Share Deadlines

Keep the SMEs in the loop about timelines and deadlines, so they have clear knowledge of when things are due

Give Credit When It’s Due

When a SME has been really helpful, has devoted a lot of time, or has provided you with really good information to complete your job, send them (and the project manager) an email to recognize and thank them.

Hopefully following these tips will help you build a solid relationship with your SMEs. This will go a long way in ensuring you have a smooth project and get what you need, when you need it.

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