Working with SMEs to Build Better Online Courses
When it comes to building online courses, you’re the expert. You’ve mastered course navigation menus, know how to build interactions that engage even the most reluctant learners, and seem to have a sixth sense for when’s the best time for a quiz. But when it comes to the content that goes into your courses, you might find yourself at the mercy of your subject matter experts (SMEs).

Your SMEs give you the information and feedback you need to build engaging, informative, and relevant online courses. When things are going well with them, your projects run smoothly, you have the information you need to design your course, and you meet your deadlines. But when things aren’t going so well, you might end up with a ton of irrelevant content, a frustrated team, and urgent voicemails from angry clients.

Simply stated, when it comes to your course’s success, SMEs play one of the most important roles. So why take chances with these important folks? Here are a few simple guidelines to help you build and maintain a great relationship with them.

Get to Know Your SMEs

Picture this. You’re super busy and two team members ask for your help. You hardly know anything about Mary–she’s worked with you for a while but tends to keep to herself unless she needs something. But Bob always takes a minute to say hi and ask how you’re doing. He sometimes even offers to get you a coffee when you’re working late. Who are you more likely to help? If you’re like most people, you’d probably choose Bob. After all, he took the time to be friendly and build a good relationship with you.

A critical facet in managing your e-learning project is managing the relationships with people who support it.  If you want your project to be successful, it’s important to establish a good working relationship with your subject matter experts. They play a key role in the content you need, how you design your course, and whether the course succeeds or not.

So before you start talking shop with your SMEs, introduce yourself to them and get to know them a little better. That way, next time you need information from them, you can start the conversation by asking them how their daughter’s graduation went, rather than immediately grilling them for information.

Show Your SMEs What You’d Like to Accomplish

Most of the time, your SMEs assume your course will look and feel just like the other courses they’ve seen. That why they might look completely baffled when you start talking to them about creating a highly interactive course with scenarios and quizzes. Don’t panic if they look annoyed or puzzled. Just remember that they might have a hard time visualizing this and do whatever you can to help them understand what you’re planning to create.

Start by showing them two or three short examples of different types of e-learning. Be sure to keep it simple, though. Rather than focusing on the multimedia bells and whistles, focus on relevant interactivity. Show them examples that demonstrate how learners learns more through scenarios and tell them you need information that will help you develop similar courses.

When you take the time to do this, it will help them understand what you’re creating and possibly even inspire them to contribute ideas of their own.

Ask the Right Questions

One of the biggest challenges of working with SMEs is getting them to share only the information that’s important. While you definitely want them to share information with you, nothing’s worse than sorting through hundreds of pages of meaningless data on a Saturday night. So the key to success is getting your SMEs to share their expert knowledge in a way that's easy to understand and straightforward.

The best way to do this is to prepare a list of questions before you talk to your SMEs. This will help you quickly get the information you need without having to sift through a lot of nonsense. And it will show them that you have respect for their busy schedules.

For example, if you’re creating a course for onboarding new hires, ask your SMEs to describe new employees’ pain points, processes, and user stories. You might also encourage them to share any stories and illustrations that will bring their data to life.

Here are five questions to help guide your conversation in the right direction:

1. What topics cause the most confusion for learners?

2. What three things do we want learners to understand after taking this course?

3. Describe a situation where learners will apply this material on the job.

4. What processes do we need to outline to help learners complete the course?

5. Do you have any stories or reference materials that will help learners relate to what we’re teaching them?

Depending on your course, you might have many other questions you need to ask, but these five will help you gather the best-possible information from your SMEs before they have to run off to their next meeting.

Give Kudos to Your SMEs

When your SMEs come through for you, whether by delivering great content or devoting extra time to your project, be sure to show your appreciation. One of the best things you can do is send their managers an email praising their efforts (and copy them on it). Or give them a gift certificate to their favorite lunch spot or coffee shop. It doesn’t really matter what you do–just do something to show that you’re grateful for their help.

This not only serves you well immediately, but it also pays off down the road, especially if you find yourself in a situation where you need more of their time or help on another project.       

Overcome Challenges with a Strong Relationship

At the end of the day, it can be challenging to work with SMEs to gather the right information, capture and consolidate their feedback and opinions, and collaborate with them to develop the best possible course. But no matter what many challenges you face, the most important thing you can do is to show your SMEs that you value them and what they have to offer. The better relationship you have with them, the more successful your e-learning projects will be.

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