7 Benefits Of Instructional Designers Working With Subject Matter Experts

The Advantages Of Instructional Designers Working With Subject Matter Experts

This article will discuss a few critical, and often overlooked, aspects of proper Instructional Design and training. We’ll explore how professional Instructional Design (ID) can add value to your training efforts, increase return on investment (ROI), get your employees up to the standards of work and knowledge of your Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), and help your team achieve more, usually at a much lower actual cost.

The Role Of An Instructional Designer Vs. The Role Of A Subject Matter Expert

Years ago, training, like many other things, was much simpler. Someone who knew how to make a wheel would show someone who did not know. This happened for years and was quite successful based on the best information and tools that were available at the time. The person that knew was the Subject Matter Expert; the person who did not yet know was the apprentice or learner. It was not until World War II that Instructional Design began to evolve from the old way of having Subject Matter Experts simply tell others what they knew. This was because the United States Military needed to very quickly, efficiently, and effectively train hundreds of thousands of adults in many different technical areas… some with literally life-or-death consequences.

By the 60’s and 70’s, the shift from behavioral psychology to cognitivism had taken place within Instructional Design, to be followed by constructivist approaches in the 1990’s. Since then, Instructional Designers have been trained on the scientific approaches to learning and have a firm grasp on how adults learn. Rather than detailing the differences between cognitivism and constructivist approaches and how they evolved, we will be discussing the current state of training best practices and Instructional Design. It is important to know that this is what informs Instructional Designers and their approach today.

Psychological and cognitive science has illuminated areas of the learning process that has grown our understanding of how people learn. The mastery of the cognitive science behind learning is the stock-in-trade of today’s Instructional Designer (ID). Whereas showing someone something new may be considered training to many, the ability to orchestrate a learning experience based on what we now know about the adult learning process often makes the difference between effective and ineffective training. Instructional Design is the development of instructional experiences leveraging learning theory and cognitive science in a systematic and purposeful method. It includes the analysis, design, development, delivery, and evaluation of the learning experience.

The Problem With Designing And Developing Corporate Training

Specifically, trained Instructional Designers are now the preferred Subject Matter Experts when it comes to designing and developing your organizations training. But many organizations will often use their Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to design, develop, and deliver training content; they will even have them design full curricula.

There are significant disadvantages to this approach that could be giving training a bad name and, even worse, prevent the talent in your organization from learning to their full potential. This has a negative impact on training outcomes in multiple ways. Using SMEs to design and develop training is costing companies money and time, and many don't realize how much money or time they could save, or how much they could benefit, from using professional Instructional Designers to design, develop, and perhaps even deliver their training content and learning experiences through instructor-led, workshops, eLearning, flipped classroom, or a combination in a blended learning approach.

7 Ways Your Organization Can Benefit From IDs Collaborating With SMEs

1. Prioritizing And Categorizing

Let’s first explore how SMEs are likely to approach teaching others and compare that to the benefits of what professional IDs bring to the effort. SMEs see the whole picture, they have to, at least as pertains to their area of expertise; they see how every component of what they do is important… to what they do. Because of their expertise, SMEs view every aspect of the process and all of its components as critical, and they often struggle to reduce their knowledge down to the need-to-know information for new, intermediate, or even for some advanced learners. Although experts in their field, SMEs are not experts on how to identify and determine what is critically important to those learning new skills or those who are being introduced to content that builds on their existing skills or knowledge. SMEs are not experts in adult learning theory, cognitive science, instructional practices, developing a learning schema; and they are rarely excellent presenters and teachers.

IDs can get your SMEs' expertise narrowed and focused to beautifully execute the delivery of their knowledge to other learners in your organization; using far less of the SMEs' time than had they attempted to do it themselves. When organizing content, there are specific practices that have been mastered by Instructional Designers, who know how to organize what's important, and how to present the content in intellectually digestible pieces.

2. Detailed Steps

SMEs, while they may know every aspect of their area of expertise, often skip steps. A SME’s work is second nature and things that are intuitively or routinely known or done are often not highlighted or brought up when discussing the process or when they design learning content. Skipping steps makes it difficult for learners to follow and can easily contribute to losing their attention or comprehension in the training because things become unclear and confusing. This especially causes issues when learners go to apply what they have learned. IDs help prevent breakdowns in communication and ensure the learning experience connects all the steps in the process.

3. Jargon

SMEs are so knowledgeable in their area of expertise that they often use acronyms and industry jargon to streamline their communication without laying the groundwork first. This is usually a great strength, because SMEs work on so many valuable and advanced conceptual projects that they need to be as efficient as possible. While this is generally a highly valuable adaptation to their work, it usually has a negative effect when jargon is used to shorthand information in training. When asked, SMEs often don't even remember exactly what the acronyms stands for because they have been using them so long. IDs work with SMEs to catch these little things, which can make a big difference in allowing the SMEs expertise to be communicated in the content and course design. Keeping a skilled eye on the introduction and explanation of jargon ensures that SME knowledge can shine and learners can get the most out of the learning experience as they are indoctrinated into new or advanced terminology and work efficiencies.

4. Cultural And Learner Competency

All learners do not have the same experiences, but all adult learners do have experiences that have led to who they are and how they approach new material. It is often the case that this diversity makes a stronger organization. Diversity also brings with it the added complexity of needing to design instructional content that is applicable to a diverse group of learners. SMEs have often spent vast amounts of time in their field, and with that experience comes a certain level of isolation from a broad range of other types of learners, groups, content, and methodological frameworks. An ID brings the added benefit of having worked with broad groups of diverse learners in a variety of settings. The ID studied behavioral change and adult learning during all that time the SME was mastering their subject in their specific area. They simply have more tools in the training toolbox they can use to execute learning strategy.

While the SME was perfecting their craft, the ID was mastering how to engineer impactful learning experiences through curricula development and cognitive science rooted in how adults learn. The ID knows how to accomplish learning initiatives for many different learners and subject matters on a scalable level. Being able to approach new content with this experience is one of the benefits having your SMEs work with IDs to develop training. And because SMEs have so much tacit knowledge, the ID can be an effective translator to the learner, freeing up valuable time for the SME and saving your organization money by more easily converting that tacit knowledge to implicit knowledge.

5. Cost

There are 3  elements to the actual cost of training:

  1. The cost of your Subject Matter Expert,
  2. The cost of a professional ID, and
  3. The cost of poor development and lost opportunity.

How much do your SMEs cost you every day with benefits and overhead? How much revenue do they generate each day when they are doing what they are experts in doing? SMEs are the best at what they know, so having them work outside the scope of practice (where they are most valuable) is costing your organization a premium. These are the players in your organization who can lead teams, push the evolution of your products and growth, and lead your organization into the future. Why would you want to have them doing things such as creating or teaching courses?

Instructional Designers can help the rest of your team keep up with the work accomplished by your top experts, while allowing your SMEs to concentrate their expertise and time generating revenue for your company by doing what they are there to do. When SMEs spend time designing and developing training and other instructional content, it is costing the organization a lot of money. Experts should, as much as possible, be focused in the areas that provide the organizations with the highest return on the cost of their expertise. The SME contributes, but spends less time speaking with the ID than they would have creating training content.

Respectfully, the ID, being the expert in training and instructional content, is focused on their area of expertise. With this approach, the organization concentrates two experts into their areas of excellence, maximizing the benefits of both skill sets and increasing the benefits for multiple projects at the same time. Working with an ID, organizations save significant amounts of the SME’s time, decreasing cost while increasing value. With this, the cost-to-benefit per expert is maximized. Utilizing the right expert for the right job will ensure that all work items are properly developed and the organization can maximize its opportunity for success in each respective project. This approach also supports multiple projects being moved forward at the same time as each expert can focus their efforts the skills and knowledge that is second nature to them. The SME works on multiple projects in their area of expertise, and the ID works on multiple training projects.

6. Longevity

IDs design and develop with updating in mind; this improves the shelf life of training content. Instructional Designers are skilled in the different ways content needs to be created based on its complexity and vulnerability for change. SMEs are typically well versed in all the details and updating the content later is not a focus like it is with an ID. When the two work together, the ID can manage the level of effort put into areas or parts of the training that have frequent changes by leveraging different tools and approaches in the training content.

Instructional Designers are experts in curriculum design and course development; their design approach exists with sustainability in mind. The SME, due to the points listed above, is not an expert on organizing content, building eLearning or Instructor-led Courses, leveraging blended learning approaches when appropriate, utilizing industry leading tools and techniques to engage learners, identifying job aides, or grouping information together in a way that would significantly increase its absorption rate and longevity of the instructional material and resources based on adult learning theory.

IDs can support SMEs in their work by alleviating not only the initial instructional content being developed, but also by decreasing the level of effort needed to maintain those courses in the future. Rather than detailing the specifics of an article that is often updated, the ID may direct learners to a tool to reference the article, saving the training from needed an update as the article is updated. In a rapidly changing business environment this becomes more significant than ever before. The relationship between the SME and the ID is a winning formula for organizations who are able to recognize its value.

7. Context

IDs build context for new material by relating it to information or experiences already familiar to the learner. Due to the depth of their knowledge in their field of expertise, SMEs are mission-critical focused – sometimes this makes it difficult for other less knowledgeable learners to follow them as they go deeper; the context of the new information is often lost for the learner. Context is important and the scaffolding of exercises, activities, and lessons, that IDs use in their design approach, guide the learner through new information that builds upon existing learning schema(s). Having information in context allows the learners to understand the value of what they are learning. In context, information is better retained because learners can prioritize its significance and file it away for proper application later. IDs are well versed in storytelling and leveraging user stories to provide context to the new information.

Storytelling is another way IDs provide context and build a connection to the new material, clients, or customers. When appropriate, character usage gives the learner someone with whom they could relate. These ID techniques create a student-centered environment with a stronger foundation in experiential learning and problem solving using new information with relatable experiences.

More Than One Type Of Expert

Every trait listed above is an excellent trait for a SME. Subject Matter Experts should be the experts in their field and should not need to master the Instructional Design field. IDs rely on the SMEs' expertise to guide their expertise to create the perfect learning environment. IDs communicate the SME expertise and alleviate a huge amount of work for them in the process. The work of the ID is to illuminate the SMEs knowledge and body of work to others. When IDs and SMEs work together, the ID learns from the Subject Matter Expert in this process, and often, the SME discovers new and creative ways to explain concepts and communicate the more complex aspects of their work.

As an organizational leader, decision maker, or influencer, it is up to you to build or contribute to strong teams leveraging different experts for different work. Conducting a learning analysis, building curricula, designing and developing the content, delivering the content, and then evaluating everything to see how it can be improved is a job for IDs who are the experts in cognitive science and adult learning theory.

So, How Can You Create A Stronger Learning Experience For Your Organization?

There are primarily 2 scenarios (although others exist) where organizations have a significant opportunity to work with IDs because they understand the benefits of proper Instructional Design:

1. The organization already has Instructional Designers on the team. 

First, their organization already has IDs/trainers/curriculum developers/etc. on the team (either in-house or via contracted people or companies), but the produced training lacks the well-defined learning objectives, engagement, performance metrics, and application based activities. They may not be able to put their finger on it, but they know that the training is missing something. The current team or resources have been able to support the training needs, but now they realize what got them here… will not get them there.

2. The organization does not have Instructional Designers on the team.

Secondly, they may not have a professional ID team and so they are having other experts in the organization design and develop instructional content and training. As mentioned, it is likely someone with seniority, superior knowledge of the company processes or products, or it’s a top performer. They know these members of the team have the knowledge or skills they want to develop across the rest of the team and they know that the execution needs to improve.

By now you recognize that by “professional ID” we acknowledge that many organizations have what they call Instructional Designers, but all or most of them have no formal Instructional Design training or education. They are often from various disciplines that have “evolved” into training roles and although wonderfully experienced in the learning and development industry, these individuals frequently lack the scientific knowledge and methods of formally trained IDs. With the potential of adding just one formally trained ID to this situation, the whole team can grow because the formally trained ID can often get these already knowledgeable professionals even more information on projects they the team is working on... such as, what to them may be, new ID techniques.

In summary, IDs create the content and training you need to reach your organizational goals. They can move your training programs and content from existing PowerPoints or courses, that maybe your SMEs have already spent the time documenting, and make them what you need them to be with far greater effectiveness to improve the confidence and competence of learners. Learner-centered activities rooted in how adults learn within an experiential learning style designed to apply knowledge and increase retention. Formally educated and/or highly experienced Instructional Designers can determine the correct delivery modality, adult learning theories, job aids, and media strategy to apply based on the learning needs and environment. IDs are dedicated to helping companies in all industries better understand and teach today’s increasingly complex and constantly evolving products, policies, practices, and procedures necessary for success and growth… in the most goal and cost-effective manner possible.