Thursday, November 30, 2006

Be Nice to Your SME!

We had a lively webinar session on Thursday on Using Subject Matter Experts Wisely: Keeping Your eLearning Development Projects on Track. About 60 training and education folks from across North America jumped into the debate on how best to work with subject matter experts (SMEs) in getting at their expertise and integrating this into your eLearning intervention.

When we asked participants about their challenges in working with SMEs, we heard a common litany of complaints. Here's a sampling:
  • "It can be hard to keep them (SMEs) focused on what we actually need."
  • "Some are just too busy to stop and talk with you."
  • "(My eLearning project) is not a priority for the SME."
  • "They are time constrained, and very often off site."
  • "Sometimes they don't understand the concepts of eLearning."
  • "There is a lack of clarity in what they provide to us."
  • "SMEs are willing to help, but their management is reluctant to reassign that duty to them."
So what emerges is a picture of busy, harried people who's first priority is definitely something other than your eLearning project. This can lead to frustrating and costly delays in finishing your project on time and on budget.

But maybe the problem isn't entirely with SMEs. Maybe we should bare some of the burden of blame because we often expect too much of our SMEs, especially given the fact that they themselves are not training professionals, and are usually helping us with our eLearning project as an adjunct to their regular duties and responsibilities.

In the webinar, we discussed proactive strategies for engaging SMEs in such a way that both respects their time and makes the most of their talents and experience. We showed how you can change the role of the SME from one of a writer of content, to an oracle or storyteller who can provide you with the grist for well-contextualized activity-based learning. Through thoughtful interview techniques, and the use of templates and storyboards, you can get the most from a SME in the least amount of time. Also, through such an approach, the SME knows exactly what you need and is not wasting his/her time (and yours!) trying to guess at this.

This is how you can be nice to your SME. Doing so will likely lead to eLearning that is developed more quickly, and that is also more focused on what learners need to be able to do, versus what they need to know.

There are all kinds of ways to improve your relationship with SMEs. One webinar participant, for example, said that he never went to a meeting with a SME without bringing chocolates along. Hey, I'm not against a little bribery here and there...whatever works! Talk about being nice to your SME!

If you missed the webinar, here is a recording.