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4 Tips for Working with Subject-Matter Experts

Posted by Langevin Team on 9/30/13 4:00 AM
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Working with subject-matter experts (SMEs) can be daunting. When we rely on others to provide us with course content, we often get huge PowerPoint decks full of so much material it practically becomes unusable. This is one of the origins of the dreaded “death-by-PowerPoint” we see in training. Here are a few tips that might help manage the contributions SMEs make to training:

Explain the training process

Many SMEs are simply asked to produce course content, without knowing the instructional design process. When SMEs don’t have a clear understanding of how training works, they produce content, activities, and materials in one fell swoop. To avoid this problem, explain to your SME how training is created. The ADDIE model is very useful here. By explaining the type of work done in Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation, SMEs will see that there’s more to instructional design than creating slides.

Explain the role of SMEs

The SMEs’ biggest contribution is in the analysis phase. SMEs need to document how they perform the job tasks being taught in training. I find it helps to remind the SMEs that management has identified them as exemplary performers for the job tasks involved. A little flattery goes a long way. Then I follow-up by explaining that we need them to document the way they perform those tasks.

Work collaboratively with your SMEs

The trick is to work with the SMEs during the analysis phase. I like to show them examples of good task analyses. I ask them what instructions they would like to have seen when they first started in that part of the job. Their role is to explain the process, while my role is to document it step-by-step. If I don’t understand something I’ll ask the SMEs to clarify, re-explain, and break things down further. If I don’t understand the process, the learners probably won’t either.

Give credit where it’s due

When the tasks have been fully analyzed, we now have lean, performance-based course content. If the need being filled is truly a serious one, the content should impress the stakeholders. I’ve seen people point to specific steps in a task analysis and exclaim, “Wow! This is exactly what we’ve been trying to fix around here! This is fantastic!” At this point, I make sure to point out how this content came from the SMEs. I explain how the expertise of the SME made this content possible.

Subject-matter experts can be invaluable to an instructional design project. Their biggest contribution is determining the best practices employees must learn in the training. However, the design of course activities and development of course materials is not what we should expect from them. That’s the instructional designer’s job. Hopefully, these four tips will help you manage the contributions from the SMEs and produce the best training possible. Happy designing!

Instructional Designer Starter Kit

Topics: subject-matter expert, tips-for-trainers

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