How to convert the toughest SME

You want to create an action-packed experience that revolutionizes learners’ behavior. Your subject matter expert wants you to reproduce every bullet of their 217-slide presentation. Is there any hope for your relationship? Read more.

How to convert the toughest SME

By Cathy Moore

You want to create an action-packed online experience that revolutionizes learners’ behavior. Your subject matter expert wants you to faithfully reproduce every lovingly polished bullet of their 217-slide PowerPoint presentation. Is there any hope for your relationship?

Everyone knows that in any relationship, it’s the other person who needs to change. So let’s change your SME.

1. Read what they gave you.

Before you do anything else, read all 217 slides. Respect the effort that the SME has put into their work and try to understand what they wrote. And make a note for future projects: Don’t let SMEs create PowerPoints. Ask them for an informal brain dump instead, or an interview, or any other format that they won’t put so much work into.

2. Involve them from the beginning

If you use Action Mapping, include the SME in the very first discussions with your client, when you identify the goal. Ask the SME to help answer these questions:

  • Why does this course (or project) need to exist?
  • What would happen if we didn’t create the course? How much could that cost the company?
  • What is the one clear change we want to see happen as a result of our course?
  • How can we tell if the change has occurred? How can we measure it?

3. Ask them to help identify what people need to do
and why they aren’t doing it

Once the SME agrees with the business goal of the course, ask them to help you identify what people need to do on their jobs to reach that goal.

Often, the SME is too close to the process to see it from the bird’s-eye view that you need. Some questions that might help:

  • Which people are involved in the process or action?
  • How would you describe each person’s role to a 10-year-old?
  • Could you walk me through the basic process from beginning to end?
  • What would happen if Person X didn’t do their part?
  • Is this step optional, or is it required to reach our goal?
  • What’s a common mistake at this point?
  • What information or support do people have? Do they use it? If not, why not?
  • What pressures are people under?
  • Are people rewarded if they achieve the performance we need? How?

4. Ask them to help brainstorm activities and limit information

For each on-the-job action that you want your materials to teach, ask the SME to help you think of an online activity that gives learners a chance to practice the action (not recognize facts).

Often, it’s easier for SMEs to respond to your ideas first, before coming up with their own. So sketch a sacrificial prototype activity that you know won’t be quite right, and show it to the SME. They’ll be happy to correct you, and that might be all the momentum they need to begin offering their own ideas.

If your SME keeps suggesting fact checks instead of more realistic decision-making activities, you might try the following questions:

  • If a person doesn’t know that fact, what do they do wrong on the job? How would that affect our goal?
  • How could you tell by watching me do my job that I know that bit of information?
  • What mistakes do new people make?
  • What mistakes do people make when they get over-confident?

This helps remind the SME that the only information that should go into the material is the info that’s required to perform the activities. If the SME wants to add more information, ask them to identify the activity for which it’s vital.

This last phase can be challenging for the SME, because you’ll be chopping information that they cherish. If the chopping gets too painful for them, consider creating an optional place for the “nice to know” information and linking to it in the course.

For more ideas on working with SMEs, check these out:

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13 comments on “How to convert the toughest SME

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  1. Great post! We always encounter 1 or 2 people on the team who want us to “faithfully reproduce 217 slides”. We usually use client’s e-learning project managers to influence them.

  2. Great post – the slide show your recommended is very accurate!

    One of the challenges working with SMEs is that they find it difficult to understand that the people you will be training are not expected to be become SMEs as a result of the training. Additionally, many SMEs may feel threatened as they often feel their point of difference is their knowledge – so the 217 powerpoint is often an exercise to point out that they know more than anyone else.

    I had to work with a very, very entrenched SME. He had been approached by others in regards to a particular learning process and handed them a 217 page size 10 font word document. I took a different approach. I talked to him about their being 4 levles of knowledge & skill:

    1. Basic
    2. Intermediate
    3. Advanced
    4 .Super User

    I explained that he is a SuperUser and that our goal is not to replicate his skill set, but to use his skills and knowledge to help develop accurate and effiecient training.

    Together, we developed descriptions of the knowledge and skills each level requires. These later became our learning objectives (pre-requisites for the next level up).

    This helped him understand that I knew that he was a SuperUser not because of formal learning, but because of formal and informal learning, because of his first hand experience and because he had had opportunities to learn from mistakes. And that we needed him to continue developing his knowledge and skills as an SME.

    He never handed me the 200 page document. Instead, he presented me with a list of procedures that a Basic user needs to know.

    And he was eager and proud to be part of the design process. And our output was much more effective.

    I find using this approach encourages collaboration and the SME feels that their input is respected and valued (as it always is).

    1. You make some great points, Jennifer. In addition to breaking it down from Basic to Super User (or something equivalent), I also ask my SMEs to help me identify what is: 1) essential information, 2) supporting information, and 3) nice to know for the category I am targeting (typically Basic or Intermediate). This additional step provides me with even greater clarity as I organize the materials and look for the most appropriate learning strategies to make the content most relevant to learners.

  3. Thanks, everyone, for your comments and your links to more ideas.

    One thread that appears to be common is that we need to make sure the SME understands that:
    1. We value ALL their information, and
    2. We’re cutting some of that information because our goal is to get learners to a basic level of proficiency, not to clone the SME.

    I agree that it’s also essential to learn as much as you can independently and to show the SME that you’ve done your homework. This includes reading what they gave you. When I’m the SME there’s nothing more annoying than realizing that my colleague hasn’t read what I wrote. That rings all sorts of alarm bells and tempts me to go into micro-managing mode.

  4. Here’s a LinkedIn discussion that covers some related ground: “How do you get and keep stakeholders involved during training development?”

  5. “We’re cutting some of that information because our goal is to get learners to a basic level of proficiency, not to clone the SME.”

    That’s a great way to explain it. I think it’s too easy for our relationship with the SME to become adversarial, when we really are aiming for the same ultimate goal of helping learners. (Well, nearly all the time…there are some SMEs out there who are more interested in showing off their own expertise. But some IDs are that way too.)

  6. I am new to the instructional design process and have never worked directly with an SME. My recent work with the design theories have helped slow down the lesson planning process of which I am used to as an elementary teacher.

  7. I work in state government & I’m new to the field. SME’s are already asking me to put their narrarated presentation in our LMS. They aren’t interested in meeting and need it done yesterday. What can I say to change their minds? I’m afraid that they aren’t interested in facilitating learning.

  8. You showed some great aspects of converting tough SMEs. Working with SMEs is a great challenge which is faced by every student. If a student can successfully handle his/her SMEs then he/she can also become a successful learner.