Tips on How to Ramp SMEs in the Instructional Design Process

Subject matter experts (SMEs) and instructional designers can often misunderstand each other’s intentions when working together on learning projects. Find common ground and create a process that works for everyone. 

One of biggest challenges we hear from learning and development leaders is working with SMEs to build courses. As organizations’ learning needs proliferate and technical and industry-specific skills become increasingly sought after, learning leaders are ever-more dependent on SMEs for the expertise needed to drive the content on which in-house courses are built.

instructional design process

Perform an interview

The first step in establishing trust in the working relationship with the SME is to learn more about the individual’s background and role in the company. You may also wish to learn more about the SME’s particular motivation for working with you on the learning project — it may not necessarily be part of their job requirement. Perform an interview with the SME — but don’t call it that. It’s an information-gathering exercise so that both sides can learn more about each other.

It would make your job a lot easier if the SME has already built courses with your company and is familiar with current systems, processes, and resources.

But if the SME has not, you need to explain more of the instructional design process and how their expertise fits in to the big picture. Taking the time and exhibiting patience by sharing your craft will go a long way — not only in garnering trust but also easing the process later on when deadlines and deliverables abound.

Even if the SME has not helped build courses in your company, chances are, the expert has built or contributed to books or courses elsewhere, such as for a trade industry group, online course, or seminar. Experts are also passionate, and most likely have found an outlet to share their knowledge with the outside world. Whatever experience this expert has had in creating learning experiences will be invaluable for your efforts in building a current course.

As learning needs escalate, and as you work with more and more SMEs, these interviews may turn out to be less of a joyous occasion to learn more about a project partner and more of a headache as you schedule and try to complete these one-on-one sessions at scale. Find a solution: perhaps create a questionnaire for your in-house experts, and then follow up with a short call or videochat. Discover efficiencies in the onboarding process and make these a part of your learning Experience design system.

Enable communication during the instructional design process

Communication between instructional designers and SMEs is vital to program success. Communication should be strategic, and like any relationship, can be difficult to achieve but both parties must work at it to be successful.

Before beginning work with an SME, think about what you need to communicate, the language you will use, the means of communication, and how often you need to communicate.  Experts are often hard at work writing materials, and perform better when communication is minimal.

Keep in mind that you too are a subject matter expert — in instructional design. As such, you can perhaps talk about ADDIE and speak the language of learning design all day long. However, the SME, on whose expertise the course will be built, most likely does not speak your language and you will need to communicate concepts in a manner which is understand by everyone. 

Over time, as you work with more and more SMEs, you will find ways to present instructional design concepts in easily understandable and compelling ways, thereby enabling communication with SMEs and paving the way for a successful learning project.

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