Nuts and Bolts: Working With Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Written By

Jane Bozarth

March 01, 2011

Years ago I was charged with developing an online program to replace classroom “training” on the government budget process. The performance issues involved issues that I thought of as being trivial: managers using incorrect vocabulary or making easily corrected errors in the paperwork when dealing with their financial departments.

Experts in the main budget office were very helpful, but they had just been too deep in the trenches for too long. When I asked what the average manager in the average-manager role needed to know, the experts would go into breathtaking detail about the budget process. And I’m sorry to have to say this, but the details were stupefyingly dull. I was trying to develop a quick overview to solve small problems; the existing classroom course on the same content was two days long.

I just wasn’t getting anywhere with the most obvious SMEs, but I happened to know a local-level budget officer from a previous job. She was the one who had worked day-to-day with the kinds of managers who made up the target audience.

When I told her what I needed she said, “Managers really just need to know how to get what they want.” She explained: “If a manager wants a new roof for her office building, or to upgrade a Jeep used in a state park, or to get new uniforms for her officers, she needs to know how to ask for that in a way that will help her get it.” Where the other SMEs had been tactical (do it because it’s the rule), this SME was strategic (if they don’t do it correctly, the paperwork will be misdirected or delayed or rejected, and they won’t achieve their goals). The SME went on: “The language the manager uses matters, the forms she fills out matters, and how requests get routed matters. The training should focus on that, not on all the other details of the policy.”

The light bulb came on. I’d found a more meaningful performance-based outcome, the critical content, and the “What’s in it for me?” factor important for gaining learner attention, all in one fell swoop. The program nearly created itself after that.

So don’t just find an SME — find the right SME. In my experience, organizations will recommend as an SME the person who has been doing a job the longest. That person may just have too close a view, as with my budget experts. Or that person may be carrying years of bad practices, workarounds, and war stories. They often want to share their exceptions to the ordinary: not, “What does the new worker need to know every day?” but, “This weird thing that happened on a Tuesday in 2006 and how I fixed it.” The better choice isn’t always the most experienced worker, but the most recently competent one: that newer person who remembers what it was like not to know how to do a task, who remembers having to learn and what that entailed.

Here are some other tips for working effectively with SMEs, and getting the help you need. Remember, we are all SMEs for someone else: think of a time you have been one. How did it go? What did you learn? What does this look like from the SME’s point of view?

Ask the right questions: Ask a subject matter expert, “Does the learner need to know this?” and the answer will always be “Yes!” Often SMEs don’t understand that we are just trying to get a new performer up to speed, not create another SME. Instead, try: “Can you give me an example of when the learner would use this information?” and, “How often does that happen?” and, “What is the consequence if the learner doesn’t know this/perform this?” Don’t ask “What do you know?” but “What decisions do you have to make?” Turn the conversation to instruction: Cathy Moore (http://blog.cathy-moore.com) suggests asking the SME, “What are three common mistakes?”, and then turning those into branching scenarios.

Do your homework: Spend some time researching and reading up on the topic before meeting with the SME. This will gain you respect, increase your credibility, and save the SME time in walking you through basic information. Be prepared with examples of your own: if you don’t want them to suggest a screen-by-screen narrated reading of the procedure, then show them another way to present it.

Remember, the SME already has a job. Don’t expect endless, frequent meetings. Plan for the conversation, and don’t call back three times needing something you forgot to get in the first place. Don’t waste the SME’s time.

Pay attention to the relationship: Begin with the end in mind. The SME has information that you need, so work to cultivate a collegial relationship — this will help you get the information you need. Be respectful. Appeal to their sense of expertise and mastery. And for goodness’ sake, say, “Thank you.”

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