In the world of Learning and Development, Subject Matter Experts, a.k.a. SMEs are an important resource. But why? SMEs are individuals with a high level of knowledge, expertise, and experience in a specific area making the highly valuable in any workplace. It’s likely there are some (or many!) in each organisation.
In L&D, partnering with a SME can be a great way to enhance training and development courses as they possess knowledge that can help ensure the validity, credibility, and legitimacy of content. Additionally, by partnering with SMEs, learning designers can offer programs that are highly specialised or technical. The key for L&D specialists is to be able to apply that expertise and embed it into the learning experience.
Here at Interactive Workshops, we engage with SMEs across a wide range of companies, in various roles. After working extensively with SMEs, and collecting both their feedback and our reflections, here are our 10 top tips on how to best work with SMEs, and how working together can improve learning and development.
1. Value their time
SMEs are experts in their field, and they are often in high demand. This makes their time very valuable, and limited. They will have many responsibilities outside of this work, so be sure to acknowledge this. To better value their time, it is critical to know exactly what is wanted prior to engaging with them.
2. Provide context for the work
To ensure that the SME is providing the right information, provide context on the project as early as possible. It is important to contextualise the project before asking for any input. Explain to the SME the project, scope, & timelines before showing specific content. This will help the SME provide targeted and relevant information for the right context.
3. Find the right person
Sometimes when designing learning, individuals will be eager to help and be part of the process, unfortunately, they might not be the right person for the job at this time. We must make sure that the SME’s level of expertise aligns with the project. Simply put, engage with the right SMEs for the right answers.
4. Listen and learn
Take their advice seriously. It seems like an obvious suggestion, but when engaging with SMEs, be willing to make changes based on their advice. They are the experts in their field, and as learning designers we have a lot to discover from these interactions, so be sure to listen, and learn.
5. Be clear about expectations & timelines
In the early stages of communication, it is important to set clear expectations and timelines together. Some important questions to consider are: What is the best way to communicate? Will they be providing feedback on work? Or providing knowledge and context in a lecture style? When there is clarity on what is being asked and when, they can provide better feedback.
6. Build a relationship with the SME
It’s all about building relationships. It is likely that while working with SMEs they may be contacted more than once for a specific project, or even later down the line for another. It is important to try to build and sustain a good working relationship with the SME.
7. Remember, learning designers are experts too
As previously mentioned, when working with a SME, it is essential to value their time and input. However, it is a two-way conversation, remember that learning designers are experts in their field too. Keep this in mind during the conversations, and remember, it’s okay to question and push back on some ideas and suggestions.
8. Communicate effectively
At the start of the relationship, be sure to outline preferred methods and frequency for communication. This could be an open discussion about preferred methods. For example, do they prefer to have conversations in person, online, or via instant messaging? Decide on the communication methods that work best for both parties, to ensure they are being as efficient as possible.
9. Be prepared
The SME is likely to be extremely knowledgeable about a topic, or extremely passionate about their topic (…often both!). Some SMEs will absolutely love talking about their subject area when given the chance. Being prepared with the right information, and the right questions, can help to guide the conversation.
10. Keep a record
Finally, remember to record the chat. During the conversation, the SME is very likely to provide a lot of information, in a short period of time. Even if notes are taken extremely well, pairing this with a recording, or a written summary after the discussion, is useful to keep all important information in one place to come back to at any time.