Working With SMEs
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Instructional Designers And SMEs

SME? You may even be asking, what is an SME? Let’s make sure we all understand that an SME is a Subject Matter Expert in a field or industry. One of the awesome benefits of being an Instructional Designer is that you do not have to be an expert in any specific industry. You have the possibility to work in any industry, from healthcare to manufacturing. That’s right! You have the versatility as an Instructional Designer because your primary go-to is your SME.

As an Instructional Designer, building a positive relationship with the SME is imperative to a successful design. After all, the SME is your go-to expert. Relationships of any kind take work. As an Instructional Designer, you must be cognizant of the functioning dynamics of interpersonal relationships and work to establish a positive relationship with the SME based on these. If you are reading this and will be working with an SME soon, whether it is for the first time or not, take notes and make sure you are fully prepared.

1. Be An Active Listener

To start with, active listening is a critical component of any relationship. Regardless of your thoughts, opinions, etc. of the SME, just listen. I know this may be hard, as we all tend to formulate thoughts for the next point we want to make while another person is speaking, but do me a favor and don’t. Just listen. Think positive thoughts and humble yourself. Listening is an art form and must be practiced.

2. Appreciate Your SME's Time

Appreciate your SME and their time. They are experts in their field and their time is valuable, therefore you want to be respectful of that. Each of you, the designer and the SME, will contribute important aspects to the content and development of the design. Have a fresh and positive attitude, make no judgments, and proceed with an open mind.

3. Clarify The Roles

The SME will provide the content based on their expertise, and you will design the content in order to provide a meaningful learning experience. However, it is beneficial to determine the philosophical assumptions of the SME. Yes, I said it. The philosophical assumptions. What does this mean? Well, basically, you need to clarify the roles and understand the expectations the SME has. One assumption the SME may have is that the relationship is a customer-seller relationship. Essentially, this means the SME views their role as the customer and expects the designer to deliver an end product. The SME could also view the relationship as prescriptive, in which the end product isn’t the focus as much as the ongoing relationship is. A collaborative approach could be taken where a rapport is developed and communication is emphasized. It is important to identify the type of relationship and respond appropriately. Yes, it may take some covert actions on your part to determine the type of the relationship, but it will benefit you in the long run to have clarified the roles.

4. Be Prepared

Be prepared. Simple enough, right? I’ll keep it short. Do your homework. Know your stuff. Yes, that’s it for this section, moving on.

5. Stay Organized

Keep things transparent and develop clear and established exceptions and roles. Develop a schedule, a deadline, a progress tracker, and a sign-off document. Be organized.

6. Value Your SME And Try To Get Them Interested

Your SME may not be fully engaged in the project, as it is not their own. They are the expert, and the interest may end there. Be creative and get them involved in some way. Remember their time is valuable, so you will have to be flexible and work around their schedule.

So, let’s recap the important information:

  • Make sure you are an active listener
  • Appreciate their time
  • Be prepared (agenda already sent, schedule, documents)
  • Stay organized
  • Value their opinions and thoughts, they are the expert
  • Keep open communication
  • Welcome their feedback

It will also help to show them examples of your work and exemplary eLearning courses you have created. Keep them in the loop with updated information and feedback. Overall, play nice.

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