6 Things You Need to Know About Working with SMEs on a Training Project

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We write about working with subject matter experts (SMEs) from time to time, in order to share experiences and new insights. SMEs may not be instructional designers but without their expertise, courses cannot be built.

With the explosion in the need for learning experiences, the ability to work successfully with SMEs has become of the utmost importance. While a host of authoring tools and technologies abound to help you convert content and rapidly prototype, there are several strategies to keep in mind when working with this group. Let’s have a look at a few of them.

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1. You are not their boss.

And they are not your employees. As such, strong team-building and leadership skills are in order here.

In today’s remote, matrixed, and hybrid work environments, coworkers may become managers, and consultants may become direct reports. Figuring it all out requires a high level of social and emotional intelligence.

Hopefully, you and your team have past experience working with professionals outside of your department on both short- and long-term assignments. This will prove helpful when working with experts not accustomed to serving as contributors to a learning project.

Project managements skills, enabled through software and Agile methodologies, can also help here. The ability to track everyone’s tasks and understand how each contribution affects the overall project are key to a smooth learning project.

Have you started digitizing your knowledge capture from SMEs? Check out this free ebook on how Agile can help to power your digital transformation in L&D.

2. They are already overbooked.

This goes without saying, but most likely the SME has little extra time to devote to a learning project.

You can adopt a few strategies to make the project more enticing—and to make the use of their time most efficient:

  • Don’t ask the SME to carry out any of the administrative work, such as designing or programming. This should be handled by your team.
  • Use past performance metrics to provide a realistic picture of the time requirements of the SME.

Some companies get around this by adding to a job description or KPI a requirement to share expertise via courses.

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3. Make them feel included.

SMEs are of course the outsiders: you are asking them for their assistance on a project basis.

One of the strategies that we’ve advocated for quite some time is the need to include the SME as early as possible in the project. No one likes to feel like an outsider, and no one wants to feel like they are being added late in the game and told what to do.

You may even reach out to SMEs weeks or even months before a project is set to kick off. The training intake form may have included a request for that particular SME and you can reach out to her in advance to let her know that she might be included in the development of a learning experience.

Further, as industry experts, SMEs may have some prior experience in building courses and sharing knowledge. They may not be instructional designers but their insights could be a valuable driver for the project overall.

4. They (might) have egos.

That’s right: we said it.

Dealing with those who are experts in their field comes with a potential host of complications. They may have authored books or keynoted conferences in their industry. They may even receive outside payments from publishers and industry associations for their expertise.

And you’re asking them to contribute content for a course for employees—for free. As such, some of them may bring less-than-constructive attitudes about the course content or structure to the table.

While there is no single go-to strategy for dealing with experts of this level, and while personalities vary, it’s important to remain empathetic and handle difficult situations with grace. Build bridges with the expert’s team or staff to gain an inside perspective. Remain professional and kind.

And remember: everyone has a manager.

5. They thrive on data.

SMEs often hail from technical backgrounds. As such, they understand the importance of data to both define and measure performance.

To encourage SMEs to participate in your learning project, think about the data that will resonate with the expert. Here are a few numbers that you can use to convince—or perhaps even dazzle—the expert:

  • Number of training requests received for the particular course
  • Number of employees expected to take the course
  • Bottom-line impact to the business
  • Hours needed to build the course (use previous, similar courses)
  • Average number of learners and the success rate for the courses built in-house

You can explain to the SME how his or her contribution will impact or even change these numbers.

6. Keep recruiting.

Finding that perfect SME for your learning project can often prove to be a challenge. Further, once you’ve found the perfect SME for your learning project, you may come to find out that there are some limits to working with them, such as the following:

  • They are indeed an expert, but not on 100% of the material.
  • Their time is truly limited, and they cannot participate fully in the project.
  • They “hold back” on providing all of the necessary content, perhaps for professional reasons
  • They resign unexpectedly from the company, right before a project is about to kick off.

These things happen, which is why you need to constantly be in recruitment mode for SMEs. Here are a few ways you can systematize your efforts to find SMEs at the ready:

  • In your training request/intake form, ask the requester whether there is a specific employee at the company whom he or she feels would make for the perfect SME for the course.
  • Ask the SME for contacts who can serve as backup or a “co-expert.”
  • Add questions or messages such as, “Are you an expert willing to share your knowledge?” throughout your internal communications platforms as a way to constantly be scouting for talent. You might even want to create a mechanism for employees and managers to create a repository of expert profiles, with photos, videos, and samples. In this way, you have a network just waiting to help you create courses.

Looking for tools to help you work more efficiently with your SMEs? Check out our product features here!

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