Surviving the SME

Live Blogging from Learning 2012. Thanks to the participants of session 162 for these great tips!

Working with a Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) can be challenging.  Dealing with conflicting schedules, roles and responsibilities, and accountability issues can ruffle the most seasoned ISD. Below are three profiles of challenging SMEs and how to get the most from them.

The Buddy
This SME has been a friend for many years. They don’t understand the underlying processes you use to get the job done and rely on you to “just take care of everything”. They often ask to skirt the process and don’t understand why they have to “follow the rules”.

  • Start with an open and direct conversation about roles and responsibilities. Set deadlines and do a periodic pulse check. Find out what else your buddy is working on and make sure a realistic schedule in place. Collaborate on the deadline up front. Does anyone have constraints that will affect the deadline?
  • Clarify roles. Sometimes SMEs try to take on the role of designer and the buddy might impose in this way. It is important to help them understand how they fit into the big picture. What part do they play? What are the consequences and impact to others working on the project if they don’t fulfill that role? Establish accountability.
  • Many times the SME is a long time instructor you have gotten to know over the years and many course updates. This buddy can be very invested in the content and think of the course as “their baby”. You have to help them become a change agent so milestones are not delayed because of the attachments to the course. One way to do this is to share needs assessment data with the SME. Appeal to their passion to meet learner needs with the data. Another way is to recruit new instructors to add new ideas. This introduces some competition and might elicit the cooperation you need.
  • Friend SMEs sometimes think they can skirt the process and still get something done. It is important to communicate that you can’t take shortcuts or the project will fall apart. It’s not about “doing them a favor,” it’s about doing it right.

The Historian
The historian is an expert on a product or process that has been in place for many years. They may have been involved in previous updates. Often they are highly invested in the last version and may not agree with new updates.

  • Depending on the topic, you can get sucked into the history. It may be  fascinating, but you need to keep them on track. Find a way to create a balance between respect for the SME’s opinion and sticking to the timeline, not losing sight of the task. Demonstrate respect to the history while still moving forward.
  • Historians may be well respected in the organization and they may have great influence. Focus on bringing them into the project and making them part of the change. Communicate how their ongoing participation helps meet the goal.
  • Decide when to cut your losses.
  • Where is the accountability? Could you leverage a project manager who might have more leverage to have a direct conversation about risk to the project. Might need to elevate to the SME’s supervisor.
  • Stress the value of the person’s contribution. Clearly define the roles and responsibility, and were they add value.

Out to Lunch
This SME may be invested in the project and even great to work with int he beginning, but slowly begins to disappear. Review meetings get cancelled because of more important work meetings. Deadlines are missed. They are just too busy.

  • Set a regular meeting. Even if it is only a 15 minute chick-in. Get buy-in early that this meeting will happen. It can be rescheduled, but not cancelled. Use virtual presentations if needed to make the meeting more convenient.
  • Be persistent. If you keep calling and emailing them you will stay on their radar.
  • Ask to observe the SME on-the-job to better understand and get what you need. They can continue working while you collect data.
  • Build good relationships. SMEs tend to come around and give you more time if you take genuine interest in them. Appreciate them… have a luncheon for them to recognize them and demonstrate why their involvement is important.
  • Do you third party project manager who can “be the bad guy” to keep everyone on track? This can help to put the SME and you on the “same team”. One participant shared this method. The project plan is posted and project manager dials into the first 5 min of every meeting to revisit the plan. This person acts as a mediator to help resolve time conflicts and manages resource allocation.
  • Use Outlook to assign tasks. Send a weekly recap email to remind about tasks and thank those who have already turned in on time. You can also block work time on their calendar to help them carve out time to do the work.

General Advice

  • Be very clear about roles and what everyone brings to the table. Even if you’ve worked with the SME before, don’t assume they understand the design and development process. Be clear about what content and data they need to provide so that the project will be successful.
  • If you use Articulate, (and you don’t want them to try to design) don’t share that it comes from powerpoint!
  • Communucate, communucate, communucate… keep them up to date on developments. Share the product… follow up when the learning product is final and give them credit as a contributor.
  • Respect their time and schedule them in meetings only when needed. They will be more likely to attend meetings if they know they have an active role.
  • Recognize the value of their contribution. Let them know how important their expertise is. Send them thank you cards and reward cards… not just at end, but at milestones throughout. Hold an annual lunch for your SMEs and give them some public recognition.
  • If scheduling conflicts are an issue, schedule lunch to get the review meeting. Pay for lunch. Get offsite if possible.