SMEs Are Not Instructional Designers

SMEs Are Not Instructional DesignersWe all know that Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) provide the content that makes a course informative. But sometimes, their content may get a little too much “in the weeds,” and you find yourself bogged down with a mountain of information that’s “nice to know, but not need to know” for your learners. So where’s the balance? Here are some helpful tips for getting the most from your SME, without letting their expertise overwhelm the course focus.
 

Involve the SME from the Beginning

This tip may seem obvious, but it’s worth acknowledging. The SME should be part of the project team from the beginning, starting with the kick-off meeting. Having the SME share his or her vision for the course lets you know you’re either on the same page or you’re not, in which case you can deal with it early on. Involving the SME from the get-go also helps to establish a rapport with that person, especially if you’re working at different locations and have not met before. As part of the kick-off process, it’s also good to walk the SME through your learning development process, if they’re not already familiar with it, so they know what to expect and the time requirements on their part.
 

Get Familiar with Their Materials

PowerPoints, documents, graphs, charts…do you really have to review all this? The answer is, of course, yes (or, at the very least, you should review the materials and get familiar with the content). When a SME puts forth the effort to provide you with resources, it’s in your best interest to review them, even if much of it won’t end up in the course. In general, SMEs are passionate about their subjects and most are eager to share their knowledge with you. Even if your schedule is a little overloaded (and whose isn’t?), respect their effort to catch you up on the field. Often, this “data dump” can be overwhelming and very time-consuming to get through.
 
As an alternative to receiving a lot of raw content from the SME, Cathy Moore suggests asking the SME to give you “an informal brain dump, or an interview, or any other format that they won’t put so much work into.”
 

Prepare for Interviews

Make an effort to understand the subject area on your own. Do some research and try to find answers to your most basic questions before meeting with the SME. Showing that you’ve done your homework and asking good questions during the interview gives you credibility with the SME and avoids unnecessary phone calls or emails later on. As Jane Bozarth points out in her article, your SME already has a full-time job. “Don’t expect endless, frequent meetings. Plan for the conversation, and don’t call back three times needing something you forgot to get in the first place.”
 

Get Their Help with Topics and Activities

Your SME knows what learners need to know to be experts, and they are valuable assets in brainstorming the ideal course topics and activities. Guide them by asking about real world scenarios and problems. What are some common mistakes people make? What information does the learner absolutely need to know to do his or her job well? In many cases, it may be easier for the SME to respond to something you’ve written rather than to start from scratch, so draft up potential scenarios and activities as examples for the SME and let them revise and refine.
 

Submit an Outline for Approval

After you’ve interviewed the SME and done your own homework, create a detailed outline of the course content to get the SME’s approval on the proposed scope and sequence before you move on. The outline could include descriptions of the scenarios and activities that you’ve brainstormed with the SME.
 

Work Together to Limit Information

During the process, you may need to remind the SME of the course focus and that you intend to use only information that is vital to learners. Steve Boller suggests to “Help them take a step back…what level of proficiency are they trying to make the learner gain?” You know that overwhelming the learner with information that isn’t important to them is a mistake. If the SME gives you content that they think is important, but that doesn’t fit the focus of your course, try to come up with a compromise. Can this information be put into a Job Aid or be available as a resource later on? See what you can do to retain information they see as valuable, without compromising the focus of the course.

Just like in any good partnership, the quality of your SME experience will likely rely on communication and compromise. As long as you respect their time, value their help and expertise, and find ways to keep content focused on the learner’s needs, your relationship will be productive and positive, resulting in a more effective course for learners.

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Pam Kelly

Instructional Design Director at Digitec Interactive

Dr. Pam is a serial student, having earned more degrees than everyone at Digitec, combined. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Miami, an M.B.A. from the Crummer Graduate School of Rollins College (go Tars!), an MME from Winthrop University, a B.A. from Pfeiffer University and engaged in post graduate studies at the University of Central Florida for good measure. Pam also served her time on the other end of the classroom, having taught K-12 and at the university level prior to joining Digitec in 2003. In her 10 year tenure as Digitec's Instructional Design Director, Pam has designed dozens of eLearning courses for organizations including The Walt Disney Company, Yum! Brands, FINRA, Council for Economic Education, and the North Carolina Community College BioNetwork.

Spirit animal: Dog
Diet-breaker: Hand-cut fries
Comfort object: iPad mini
Personal vice: Reality TV
Useless talent: Can flip eyelids inside out
Unreasonable paranoia: Anything that slithers
Wishes more people cared about: em dashes

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  • Samuel P.

    Hello there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and found that it’s really informative.

    I am an ID and just worked on first project where we brought in SMEs. Wish I had read this first, you make a lot of great points Pam. It’s clear you’ve had experience in this area!

    Take care

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