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?

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