I recently presented a case study at the central Indiana ASTD fall conference. The focus of the case study was on using e-learning templates to facilitate rapid design. But as part of the presentation, I talked about how we managed a large group of SMEs (over 40 total) on the project. The room became alive and there were so many questions and comments I had to halt the discussion. I had obviously hit a hot topic!
Working with SMEs can be a challenging part of the design and development of learning solutions – but it doesn’t have to be! Here are my tips for working successfully with subject matter experts:
1. Get everyone in the same room (physically or virtually) to kickoff the project. Even if the SMEs will be working on different phases or aspects of the project, it is best for them to hear the same message, and for them to raise questions or issues at this meeting for all to hear. I recently did this for a project and it became clear after about an hour in that the SMEs weren’t all on the same page regarding the job function, much less how to teach it. Uncovering this issue early allowed us to avoid massive rework down the road.
2. Give SMEs a clear job description with detailed authority parameters. One of the frustrations we often have with SMEs is that they either don’t do what we want them to, or they overstep what we thought their boundaries were. Either way, this problem can be mitigated by being very clear up front what the job is. And as learning professionals, we need to remember that the project isn’t the SME’s full time job – we have a responsibility to educate them! I recommend providing an actual written job description. The one I use is about two pages and includes:
- Course development phases and SME responsibilities at each phase (how much time should they set aside to review a design document? What kinds of edits do we expect at alpha vs beta versions of the course? etc.)
- Who’s responsible for scheduling meetings.
- Rules for deadline days (I meet my deadlines, you need to meet your deadlines. What time is “end of day”?, etc.)
- How should they share source content (collaboration space, email, etc.)? Who needs to receive source content?
- Team member roles and responsibilities.
- What’s already been decided by stakeholders that outrank the SMEs. If your stakeholder has already told you what the objectives have to be, be honest about that. Don’t let the SMEs work under the impression that they have more power than they actually do. It just leads to frustration for everyone down the road.
3. Make sure that SMEs understand the domino effect of their decisions. One of the biggest challenges is getting SMEs to meet deadlines to avoid project delays. The first thing we need to do as project managers is to ensure that the deadlines we set are actually realistic. And I mean realistic. Even if the SME says that he/she can meet a deadline, usually you can tell when that’s not 100% accurate. You might need to call shenanigans if you see any of these signs:
- Shifty eyes. If they can’t look you in the eye when they agree to a 24 hour review time, don’t hold your breath.
- Avoidance. When they see you in the hall, they immediately remember an important errand on the other side of the building.
- Meetings start by the SME telling you how they have become good friends with the cleaning crew during their evening work sessions.
Once you’ve determined that the deadlines are realistic, then have honest conversations when SMEs want to make changes and additions to the solution or change the timeframe. Be sure they understand what that means for other courses, the budget of the project, and the overall quality of the project. By nature, the SME often has a narrower focus than we do because they are the expert. Part of our job is to help them see the forest for the trees and consider all options before making a decision.
4. Keep SMEs updated. At BLP, we often use a weekly/biweekly status report to communicate how things are going with the project. It’s just an excel spreadsheet that lists the project phases, who’s involved, where things are, and what’s coming up next. For SMEs, the most powerful part of the report is the icons we use to indicate status. It’s a great visual way for them to see our perception of the project. We use icons to indicate:
- Things are great!
- SME hasn’t been responsive.
- Phase needs immediate attention.
- We have some concerns/cautions.
I hope these tips were helpful! What do you to make the devleopment process a happy one for both you and your SMEs?