Tips for Working with SMEs

Subject matter experts (SME often pronounced smee) are individuals who, mainly through experience, know a great deal about a subject and in turn provide the expert knowledge for your e-Learning project. When you have questions, a SME is the person you pester until you have enough information to complete the course on your own. They are indispensable. It would be extremely difficult and time consuming to try to create a course without them. Yet working with a SME is not always easy.

I recently read an article titled The Source of Bad Writing. As I read it, I thought it could be retitled, “The Source of Some Bad eLearning.” In the article, Steven Pinker—the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and the chairman of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary—explains that the source of bad writing is the “curse of knowledge.”

“The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows—that they haven’t mastered the argot of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.”

Now, think of that paragraph in terms of SMEs and eLearning rather than writing and prose. Doesn’t it sound familiar? Isn’t a SME often guilty of the curse of knowledge? While I do believe that some people write poorly to “cover their anatomy,” as Pinker so eloquently states it, I think it mostly happens with people who are reaching outside of their comfort zone to write about something they know little or nothing about. This is not the case with a SME. They know the ins-and-out of every trace of minutia there is about their particular subject. They sometimes speak to you as if you understand, but often they just don’t know where to start. It’s difficult “imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” It’s our job as instructional designers to help them.

The curse of knowledge leads to two common problems— too little information or too much. If too little information is provided, you end up with an incomplete course. This comes about because subject matter experts are so familiar with the content that they overlook knowledge gaps in the material. If you don’t properly plan ahead, you won’t realize anything is missing until much later in the process or you may miss something altogether.

Other times, the SME wants to add any and everything she thinks is important. Unfortunately in this situation, the information often trickles its way in as the course is developed which ends up impacting your timeline and budget. To avoid this, perform a complete frontend analysis to determine what the learner needs to know. If some critical piece of information must be added to the course later, have a change control system setup prior to the start of the course. Explain to the SME that not every shred of information needs to be included, but only what is relevant to the learner. If the SME is insistent, then you can fall back on your change control system.

Here are a few tips when working with SMEs:

  1. Do your homework: If you’re approaching a course on ladder logic be conscientious and familiarize yourself with key definitions and terms prior to initial meeting with the SME. The SME will thank you for it, and you’ll step off on the right foot by not asking questions that will slow things down.
  2. Ask probing questions: This is a no-brainer. This is what we do in the analysis phase. The key here is to ask the right questions and to follow the guidelines set in your analysis document.
  3. Determine the scope and stick to it: You should be able to determine the scope after the analysis is completed. It’s always a good idea to have the SME and any key stake holders sign off on your scope document once it is completed.
  4. Have a change control system in place: Half of what we do as instructional designers is project management. Before you start any project, have a project management plan in place that includes a change control system. If you have a change control system in place or are unfamiliar with it, consult the Project Management Institute’s PMBOK or PRINCE2™ for more information. The advantage of a change control system is managing scope creep, which is an inevitable part of course creation.
  5. Build a rapport: Don’t be all business all of the time. Get to know the SME on a personal level. Do this by focusing on finding what you have in common. This can go a long way completing your project on time and within budget as well as lifting the curse of knowledge. Keep in mind that the curse of knowledge is a double-edged sword. SMEs are not instructional designers, so don’t assume that he will understand when you talk about rapid prototyping or the Dick and Carey model. And never talk down to the SME. You want to build a solid relationship and this will quickly get you off on the wrong foot.
  6. Schedule meetings and save your questions: Often times a SME is assigned to the task of being a SME for a course. It’s secondary to their primary job, so the time it takes to answer questions or provide feedback is in short supply. Be cognizant of her time and avoid bombarding her with emails or phone calls as questions arise. Instead don’t be afraid to do a little more research on your own, but set limits. If you can’t find the information you need in 20 minutes, then write it down and wait until you accumulate 10 questions before you send off the email. But you have to discern if a question can’t wait, but the point here is to not make it a habit. If a question needs more clarification, schedule a phone call. For all other questions, I prefer email because you have a written account of it, and it allows the SME to respond in her own time. The key here is to always add a time limit to your email, so the SME understands how urgent her response should be.
  7. Share information: Use software that enables you to share information in real-time such as share point, basecamp, or Google drive. This allows key stakeholders to see your progress and to provide immediate feedback.
  8. Don’t let the SME be a hijacker: As an instructional designer, you own the course no matter how well or how bad it turns out. When something goes wrong, all eyes will be on you. Therefore, when working with SMEs don’t let them take the course over. They have their role to supply expertise. You have your role to supply the educational component. Often times when a SME takes over a course it’s because the ID is new and inexperienced. Just remember you own it, and you will ultimately be accountable for the outcome. Often times when this happens, deadlines and budgets are blown and the result is a less than ideal course.

You’re likely not going to lift the curse of knowledge totally, but hopefully these tips can help when working with SMEs. Steven Pinker’s advice is to approach the course from the point of view of the reader or in our case, the student. All good instructional designers do this. As he puts it, “But the imperative to overcome the curse of knowledge may be the bit of writerly advice that comes closest to being sound moral advice: Always try to lift yourself out of your parochial mind-set and find out how other people think and feel. It may not make you a better person in all spheres of life, but it will be a source of continuing kindness to your readers.” Heed this advice not only when thinking of your learners, but also when working with SMEs. It will serve as a source of continuing kindness to them as well.

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