A Happy Marriage: When The ID And The SME Meet

A Happy Marriage: When The ID And The SME Meet
Summary: When you think of iconic duos here are a few that might come to mind: Jack and Jill, Hansel and Gretel, or Woody and Buzz. But there’s one more duo that you might be missing: the Instructional Designer (ID) and the Subject Matter Expert (SME).

It's An Important Piece To The ID Puzzle

As an ID, you will work with countless SMEs over the course—pun intended—of your career journey, so it’s important to dissect this often overlooked marriage. It’s from your SME that you get your general content…a pretty important piece to the ID puzzle. Because the role of the ID is so versatile, you need people skills to be successful just as much as you need educational and technical skills. If you are worried you are missing the aforementioned people skills, do not fear—this article will help bridge that gap. Before we start, I want to say that the first three items on this list consist of more listening than talking, and that’s intentional.

1. Preparation Is Key

You will most likely meet your SME during an initial meeting to discuss the project. Assuming you have at least a couple of days’ notice before this meeting, you will need to prepare diligently. Conduct some preliminary research on your SME and become familiar with their work and accomplishments. Do the same thing that you would do for a job interview. Even if you have been assigned to this project and the SME isn’t technically hiring you as their ID, it’s still important to treat the project with the same level of investment.

During the preparation phase, jot down some notes and questions you want to touch base with them about. If you already have a bit of context about the course that you will be designing, it’s not too early to start brainstorming some eLearning course techniques that could work well for their content. I always think of this quote by Benjamin Franklin: “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” What’s more, if you show up for your meeting unprepared, it will show, and this might threaten your SME's confidence in your abilities—something you want to avoid at all costs.

2. Take Notes

During your meeting, it’s probable that your SME will be excited to share everything they know about the content and the most intimate details of their course. While you might be tempted to participate passively, resist the temptation. Be an active meeting participant. This means that you should be taking a lot of notes.

You have to remember that many of your SMEs are considered experts in their fields and are very passionate about their content area. This passion can translate into long tangents, but for your first meeting, allow them the space to share. It can be scary and sad for SMEs to be passing on years’ worth of work to someone they don’t know, expecting that new person to turn it into an eLearning course in a way that will do it justice. Depending on the circumstances, your SME might even be hesitant about the idea of restructuring their course so that it fits a virtual environment.

If your SME is indeed hesitant about the whole concept of eLearning and is noticeably concerned about what you are going to do, then offer them plenty of reassurance. For many, their course is the culmination of a life’s worth of dedication and study and that deserves to be respected. Regardless of what has brought both of you together, the best way that you can demonstrate your understanding and support is by enthusiastically absorbing all that they have to tell you. This will also build a strong foundation for your working relationship going forward.

3. Ask Questions

You might think it’s now your turn to take over, but not quite. After their preamble, you will (and should) have a few questions for your SME. You might want to consider asking what the most important course themes or concepts are, as well as historical engagement levels so that you can start to form a fulsome view of what the course is about and who the audience will be. This will be imperative to building the course as it will provide direction and structure.

If they haven’t shared the learning objectives already, this is the time to ask! You also want to ask about success criteria—when does the SME know that a learner has successfully mastered the course? Give your SME ample time to answer your questions and avoid the urge the fill any silences with more talking. You are prompting your SME to think about their content in a new way, so delayed responses are to be expected.

4. Share Your Knowledge

Now, it’s your time to shine! This is your chance to wow your SME. Since you have already processed the basic elements of their course through your own research or your meeting, you will have a general idea of how their course could come to fruition as an eLearning product. Remember to use simple language and avoid technical terms so as not to confuse your SME. You want to convey your ideas and your abilities to your SME so that it is accessible and exciting. Paint a picture of how you can create an engaging and immersive eLearning course in a way that facilitates successful knowledge transfer. If you have samples in a portfolio, this would be the time to show them.

The most important thing to remember when it’s your turn to highlight your talents and skills is to emphasize the role of teamwork. Be sure to highlight the collaborative nature of the relationship, so that your SME knows they will be involved during every step including the review(s) and final sign-off. In fact, depending on how involved your SME would like to be, you could offer to schedule a check-in meeting to show them your progress. SMEs, much like everyone else, want to know that what they say matters, that what they say is being heard, and that their words mean something to you. Therefore, be generous with your validation. This will also help with all other aspects of your relationship with your SME. Finally, thank your SME for the opportunity to work together—a little gratitude always goes a long way.

Working With An SME

There is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to working with an SME because every person is different, but these tips will help give you a structure to getting the most out of your relationship with an SME. You can always adjust your approach as needed. So long as you don’t underestimate the importance and value of this happy marriage, you will be off to the eLearning races in no time!