Working with 'reticent' SMEs

Oct 11, 2011

I'll try and don my diplomatic hat for this one because I don't want to appear insensitive to certain SMEs that might be out there ...

The question is: how do you work with SMEs that do the following:

  1. keep communication to an absolute minimum and fail to reply to questions with straight answers
  2. struggle to articulate (no pun intended) everything from objectives through to content
  3. throw as much content together as possible and do so in a language/style that only they understand
  4. fail to put themselves in the learners' shoes and are only interested in seeing things from their own pespective
  5. create delays but still want everything done yesterday

I may be wrong but I'm sure I've worked with SMEs that really aren't interested in committing to the project and all they want to see is the end product.  They have no idea of the amount of work involved.  Likewise I'm sure many SMEs are simply ultra-busy and subsequently struggle to prioritise the speed and clarity of their communication..

Sure, part of the whole ID/dev process can involve an element of deciphering, but IMO this can be a costly use of time.  Even more so when it's the SME that 'knows their stuff inside-out' and should be willing to 're-present' in accordance with the spec.

Hence, I'm now starting to throw everything back to SME(s) stating exactly what I/we need before progressing to the next stage.  At least it's documented.

Not sure how diplomatic that was, but it's off my chest for now.  How about you guys?


4 Replies
Steve Flowers

That's a rough situation. I've been lucky for a few years and my SME's have also been engaged champions and really responsive. The other thing that helps is having someone in the client company that ensures questions get answered. Typically this isn't an SME, so that helps. These are nice to have, but not always an option.

Here is the top thing I've learned about SME's:

Some know their value to the project. But for most, helping you is just one of the many other things they have to do. And helping you will almost never be #1 on their list unless someone strategically organizes it that way

For those that don't engage, I need to put forth extra effort to interpret the tasks at hand. If I can't schedule a 30-60 minute conference workshop to work through the nitty parts, I might make some assumptions and present these in brief bit blasts (3 - 5 concepts or questions per blast) in a threatening plea to get the SME to provide adjustments and alignment. If it takes them less than 10 minutes to respond and they can cleanly close that part of the issue, they will usually engage.

The other thing that helps is using the energy at the beginning of the project to your advantage. Usually, I find the engagement at the beginning of a long project is much stronger than it is down the road. So firming up the hard parts and the framework early on can pay big dividends when the energy dips off:)

This post offers some great tips - some excellent stuff in the comment string that follows.

It's a rough thing trying to get someone that you ***need*** to respond when they aren't engaged in the process.

Daniel Brigham

Hi, Simon: I thinking getting good content from SMEs is probably the toughest things about this business. Most SMEs are not blowing you off intentionally -- it's just that you are not a priority. Two things help me with SMEs:  1. Set a firm timetable for deliverables. If they blow up the schedule, then it's on them.  2. Set up a weekly call so that you have their attention at least for a few minutes every week. The scheduled call usually gets them working on something, and you can always look at content while on the call. --Daniel 

Simon Perkins

Thanks for your comments guys.  

Looking back, it probably sounded like I was having a grumble and looking for answers whereas it was more a case of starting an open discussion for the topic as a whole.  Maybe I'm guilty of Point 2  

Some interesting ideas there.  I guess from my experience 9/10 SMEs are clients.  Sometimes they're the sponsor/champion and sometimes they're pulled in 'to do a job' by whoever is the project lead.  Haven't yet found a pattern that differentiates them because both can exhibit similar traits when things are underway.  My logic would dictate the former would be more encouraging but that's not always the case.  

I agree with putting in the effort nearer the start to build momentum.   Can save a load of 'undoing' further down the line.  And maybe stricter guidelines regarding submissions/responses and other deliverables could also encourage commitment.

Hmm, food for thought there.

Stephanie Rizk

One other thought on this topic:  Our SMEs are always thinking about what's in it for them.  But sometimes they have no idea, and it can help to motivate them if you can lay out the benefits for them in helping out.  Does your project alleviate some issue they have?  Will it give their reputation a boost?  Whatever it is, remind them that there are good reasons to completing the project on time, on budget, etc.


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