Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): we need their content to build our courses. We may have the most advanced authoring tools or the most engaging design elements in place, but without content, there’s no course.
We’ve written before about working with SMEs, and we thought it was time to have another look at the best ways to work with them and encourage them to produce the stellar content on which our learners rely.
Eventually, with the right process in place, you might find yourself with an “SME culture,” in which professionals from around the organization seek you out, requesting to help you build courses. Now wouldn’t that be amazing!
1. Involve SMEs early on.
This is a must when working with SMEs. SMEs must be part of the project from the very first day, or else the project will fall apart.
As their contributions are so vital to the project, SMEs must be made to feel valued. This is not a play to the professional ego, but rather an effort to include everyone from the very first day that a project is kicked off.
SMEs might even appear earlier than the project kickoff: their names might even appear on the training request form. Some employees, when submitting their training requests, might even write in a few names of managers or other employees, who they feel might be the best fit to lead a training. (In fact, you might even decide to add this question to the form, making it easier for you to source the right SME.)
Don’t have a training request form? No problem – download this template form for your learners and standardize your training requests straight away.
You may also need to have backup plans in place. For instance, as the course is built, both you and the SME realize that it’s too much content for one individual to write. As such, you may need to engage a second SME to assist. In the initial, exploratory stages, as you are harnessing resources, this should be discussed, and your original choice for SME should make suggestions as to whom to call on or retain as a contingency.
The idea is to keep surprises to a minimum.
2. Find the perfect fit for communications and workflow.
SMEs are most likely already overbooked and time-starved. Asking to help develop a course for employees is perhaps the last thing they have time for. (They’re most likely not paid any extra for it, either.)
Besides convincing them with data related to the impact of their efforts (see below), you should explain what working with L&D might look like.
As the SME is not a full-time member of your department, you will need to devise a work schedule that benefits everyone. The SME might have odd hours, or she might work out of a different office in a different time zone—these factors need to be figured in as well.
Further, the actual process of the course development also might need to be adjusted. For example, we’ve long advocated for the implementation of Agile Learning methodologies when it comes to the development of learning experiences.
However, Agile—with Daily Standups—might simply not work with an SME who has scant time to work with L&D. You may have to employ a hybrid Agile approach, in which the parts requiring the expertise of the SME are performed with ADDIE or a more traditional approach, and the other components, such as the actual course design carried out by L&D team members, rely on Agile.
3. Demonstrate the impact of their work.
SMEs most likely want to see data. As they are experts in their field, especially technical fields, numbers make them tick. If you cannot demonstrate the expected time needed and also the impact of their work in quantifiable terms, it will be difficult to recruit and work with these individuals.
You can demonstrate the results of past projects built with the assistance of SMEs. You can also explain how the current project might be different, and might have alternative metrics.
Here are a few metrics that might matter to an SME unaccustomed to working with an L&D team on a learning project:
- Number of training requests received for the particular subject
- Expected number of learners who will undergo the training
- Expected number of hours needed to build the learning experience
- Potential impact on the organization (the training intake form has this)
This is not to say that non-quantitative metrics do not matter. Explain that there are “softer” benefits gleaned from involvement in a learning project. Sure, the SME might become “famous” within the organization, or by serving as a contributor, the SME is demonstrating good organizational “citizenship.”
Additionally, you can explain to the SME that she can add her role in the development of the course to her LinkedIn profile or professional biography. This could impress others in their industry and lead to other, perhaps paid, instructional engagements.
4. Ask them to be ambassadors for L&D.
This may seem like a long shot. After all, you’ve already asked the SME for so much already.
However, upon completion of a successful learning project, and with learners having taken the course and the associated assessments, you have data on the success of the project. We’ve already explained the importance of sharing such metrics, but this success can galvanize the SME to want to help out the L&D team even further.
Positive feedback from the SME on working with L&D to develop a successful course can help you source and vet additional SMEs from around the organization. Potential SMEs who perhaps didn’t even think that their expertise could even be used for the sake of building courses may find you, asking to help.
You might even start an “SME Corner” on your corporate intranet, on which SMEs can share their joys, sorrows, and general insights of what it’s like to build courses.
All of these efforts will serve to facilitate your interactions with SMEs, leading to smoother course builds and more positive outcomes for everyone involved.
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.