Sunday, April 29, 2012

Baseball and ...Complex Systems Analysis?

Yes, I will admit it, I was getting my hair cut.  Which, if you think about, is pretty absurd in itself - that someone with as little hair as I have on my head would be bothering to get it cut.

At any rate, the person who cuts my hair was telling me how baseball-averse she was:  how her husband had insisted on taking her to a game (once), how bored she had been, how she had never been willing to watch another game...

...and it got me thinking about how much of what happens in a baseball game is not physically visible (although, to players, or former players, it may all seem palpable) so that while the visible action on the field may appear to be limited to the pitcher and batter, at any particular moment, there is so much more going on.

If you have played, or perhaps simply become a serious fan, you know what I'm getting at:  that at any given moment, there are multiple "systems" in play:
  • Between the pitcher and the catcher
  • Among the infielders
  • Among the outfielders
  • Among the manager, coaches, the batter and base runners
  • Among the manager, the pitching coach, and bullpen coach
Those are just the "simple" systems.  Then there are the signals between the systems - infielders and outfielders, catcher and infielders, manager and fielders...parallel systems, at different points, in particular situations, that intersect....

And those are just the covert communications among team members.  Add in attempts to steal opponent's signs, detect patterns, pre-empt tactics...

While former players spot the "gloves in front of faces" of infielders, and the series of gestures of the first- and third-base coaches, not much of this is terribly obvious to the uninitiated.

So the more I thought about it, the more I was struck by the analogy to systems thinking in an organizational environment:  the contrast between official, visible communications channels, and all of the informal channels, supported by friendships and networks of unofficial allegiances; the ways in which some of these channels intersect, or provide counterpoints...  I began to picture the "systems archetypes" at play in the organization ("limits to growth," "shifting the burden") and look for counterparts on the baseball field.  I began to think about the role of the manager in this light...

...and then, as suddenly as it began, my reverie stopped.  My haircut was complete, and my stylist still had no interest in watching a baseball game.  I, however, knew the punchline:  there's got to be a blogpost in here somewhere.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Interesting SMEs

Plumb your experience for a moment:  what are the strangest or most interesting experiences you've ever had working with a SME?
  • Discovering that your SME - a genius in his field - could not write a complete sentence.
  • Being told by an editor (after submitting a completed course) that approximately 50% of the content sent by the SME drew major hits on Safe Assign (i.e,, appears to have been plagiarized - from 8 different sources).
  • Having 90% of a completed course submitted to you in a single spreadsheet - that's content for 10 week-long units, in a 50-column spreadsheet.
  • Having a SME for a history class tell you that she would be out of the country for 2 weeks while teaching Fashion Design to the Saudi royal family.
  • Having the scripts for 90-minutes of model role plays dictated to you over the phone because the SME is "blocked" when he sits down to write.  (Thankfully, I had access to audio recording and transcript capabilities.)
  • Holding a remote course review meeting with a SME who is sitting in a hospital emergency room, waiting for a diagnosis on her husband.
  • Having a SME completely disappear for two weeks in the middle of your project - with no warning, no responses to phone calls or e-mails.
Got any of your own you'd be willing to share?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Working with SMEs: A Simple Idea?

Those of us who work in roles like instructional design, or project management, or interactive design, or for that matter, any process-oriented role, may occasionally forget what it feels like to be labeled a "subject matter expert" (SME).  We have our own ways of framing their contributions:  we talk about the "content" or "material" our SMEs provide or about "tapping into their knowledge and experience," or perhaps sometimes about their tendencies to go too deeply into "esoteric aspects" of a subject.  We may think of our roles as primarily asking the right questions, or perhaps providing a framework.  Most of us also try to put ourselves in the position of the end user of our "product" - the student, the employee, or more generically, the learner.  All may be worthwhile aspects of conceptualizing the design and development of learning experiences from our own point of view.  But what about the viewpoint of the SME?

During the past two years of developing courses and other "learning experiences," I have been fortunate to work with about 30 different individuals cast in the role of subject matter experts.  And they were different.  No two really were alike.  Like any self-respecting instructional designer, of course, I have my process, my methods, my questions.  But over the last 15 months or so I have been increasingly intrigued by the view from the other side of the bridge.  What is it like to be them?

So increasingly I have slowed down my initial process. I have inserted some nonjudgmental steps into the opening phases, all with a definite purpose, of course, but all with the ulterior motive of getting to know my SME. In the past, I was too often surprised, halfway through the development process, to find that my SME wasn't as good at conceptualization as with details, or vice versa, or just didn't write very well.  Or, in some remarkably delightful situations that my SME was extremely creative in some way, or in fact, a better writer than I am.  If only I had known at the outset.

I've learned to look for signs of talents, skills, interests, preferences, or just "special characteristics" as early as possible.  I've learned to ask questions - not just about the subject matter - but also about the SME's working preferences.  Most importantly, I've learned to observe those less obvious personal habits, those clues to what makes them productive, because these, I find, provide the greatest leverage points.

And this is my simple idea:  if my SME is productive, I, and the rest of the team, will be productive.  Increasingly, that is my focus:  how can I help my SME become productive?