Working with SMEs for Better Instructional Design Outcomes: How to produce win-win relationships and reduce stress on a project

Instructional design_how to work with SMEsLet’s face it – we, as Instructional Designers, aren’t masters of all aspects of course design and development. It takes a team to put together a successful course, and it takes aligning ourselves with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to make success happen. However, because of the differing perspectives they bring to the instructional design team, working with SMEs can sometimes be challenging. But it needn’t be.

In this article, I’ll tell you how you can forge win-win relationships with your SME partners, and explain some tips and tools to use in order to make success happen.

What SMEs Bring to the Team

Before understanding how to build exceptionally productive relationships with SMEs, it may be prudent to take a step back to understand who SMEs are, and how they add value to a course design and development project.

It may sound redundant, but it’s worth repeating: SMEs are not instructional design specialists – that’s the role of IDs. However, subject matter expertise – be it in specific areas of medical sciences, business, or finance topics, or in user interface designing – is what an SME adds to the team. So, what does that mean?

Well, let’s assume you have a commission to build a course for medical staff at a healthcare facility. If you are looking for assistance in putting together customized learning plans for your learners, developing course objectives or creating highly effective evaluation criteria for assessments, most of the leadership for those components wrests with the ID. However, as a non-medical professional, the ID consults with others to build specific content for those lesson plans and instructional objectives. Those “others” are typically SMEs.

So, in the context of our healthcare-related course, if the subject relates to proper techniques for administering Intravenous (IV) medication, SMEs – such as a trained Nurse or certified IV technician – would be ideal as a consulting expert for course content.

Working with SMEs doesn’t absolve the ID from overall responsibility for designing and delivering a high-quality course.  It does, however, put the responsibility for forging great working relationships with SMEs squarely on the shoulders of the ID.

A Win-win Approach to Working with SMEs

Like any professional, SMEs take pride in the skills and experience they bring to the instructional design process. Therefore, when you work with your SME, it is highly advisable that you (overtly and apparently) show respect for those skills. Do this by including the following suggestions into your approach when dealing with SMEs:

  • Enter the relationship with a “partnership” mindset as opposed to a “superior/subordinate” one. As the old saying goes: It takes two to Tango, so make your SME feel equally responsible for a successful dance
  • Clearly setting out the terms of reference (TORs) that govern the relationship between SMEs and IDs is a great way to ensure frictionless interaction between the two. This includes spelling out roles and responsibilities, expectations and limitations as well as lines of accountability before kicking off an instructional design project
  • Consult with them extensively, prior to making decisions on matters that clearly lie within their domains. As professionals with “skin in the game”, SMEs have the right to have a say on matters that could potentially impact the quality of their own work
  • Provide them with defensible points of view or alternate lines of thoughts, if you decide to override their recommendations. Make sure they understand why you favor your own course of action, for specific design elements, over their suggestions

Win-win Tips and Tools of the Trade

And how would you put this approach into practice? By using a few simple tips and tools:

  • Communication: To ensure a win-win working relationship with SMEs, this is one of the best tools that any instructional designer has in their toolkit. Unfortunately, sometimes, what looks like good communication to one, might feel like being condescending to another:
  • Instead of saying “Couldn’t you have applied such and such approach or process…for a better outcome!”; try communicating your thoughts as “Do you think if we applied such and such approach or process…we’d end up with a better outcome?”
  • Communicate in the SMEs language. For example, if you are working with a User interface (UI) or User Experience (UX) specialist, communicate in terms of APIs, Accessibility, Adaptiveness, Breadcrumbs, User Flow, as opposed to broad “training requirements”, “lesson plans”, “Instructional objectives” or “course design elements”
  • Make liberal use of Scenarios and User Stories to ensure SMEs understand who your learners are and what you’re learning/teaching objectives are

POINT TO REMEMBER: Frequent communication is good, but excessive communication is a project-killer

  • Scheduling: Everyone is busy, and so too are your SMEs. If you work with freelancer SMEs, chances are that they have other clients that have equally pressing timelines as your project. The key to a win-win working relationship, with SMEs on an instructional design project, is to “negotiate” schedules and not “dictate” them:
  • Given that they, and not you, are the experts in their domains, give your SMEs as complete a picture of your timelines as you possibly can, and then solicit feedback from them about realistic time and work efforts
  • Where possible, schedule around availability (or lack thereof) of your SMEs. It’ll make them feel appreciated, PLUS, given that timelines now fit their availability, they’ll likely deliver a better-quality product (as opposed to delivering through a scrambled dash to meet imposed timelines)

REMEMBER: There are some scheduled events, like a kick-off meeting or brainstorming session, that you must absolutely insist upon SME participation, regardless of SME scheduling challenges. This is especially imperative for sessions relating to course design elements directly or indirectly within the SMEs purview

  • Be specific: SMEs are domain specialists, so, when you lay out what you need them to deliver, be as specific as you possibly can:
  • Instead of handing them a 20-page Word document with lots of text and bullet points, present them with a Wireframe of your course outline so they have visual context for what’s required
  • Use screenshots and graphics to illustrate specific features and functionality you are looking for. For example, if there are precise aspects of a course assessment component used by a competitor, that you’d like to mimic in your course, come prepared (with a URL or screenshots) to demonstrate those features to the SME. They’ll be much better prepared to advise on whether those aspects are relevant to your course

REMEMBER: Being “specific” is often a delicate balance between explaining your point of view, and coming across as seeming to teach SMEs what they are experts at doing! So, be specific enough so you strategically convey what you must, without dictating the tactics (SMEs domain) of how they should accomplish what you want

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