Working with SME

Too often work with the SME is complicated.
In my case, it appears that they never have time to devote to e-learning project and that everything else is more important than building a script.

How do you approach the job with SME? Have you got any strategies that you use to save time with them?
Do you have standard procedures?

9 Replies
Brian Sullivan

We try to determine audience, learning objectives, customer time frame and budget up front. This should be determined by the project initiator/owner -- not usually by the SME. We use a facilitated/structured meeting/interview with SME to gather initial information (assuming we are starting with an almost clean slate). We video tape the interview and use that as a basis to create a raw script/storyboard.

If there is a reasonable set of base resources that the SME is comfortable with or has created available, we might avoid this step and go directly to creating a first pass storyboard. Often the most difficult issue dealing with a SME is not determining what content should be included but what should be excluded. Headng off the tendency of SMEs to have too much information in the lesson/course is a primary concern.

A short time later we meet with SME (and often other knowledge/stake holders) to do a first pass edit. on the storyboard We try to do as much editing as we can in situ. Usually this means having a facilitator and an editor/scribe from our side at this meeting. Once we have this first pass storyboard we start to assemble/create media (often with the assistance of the SME). We usually let the timeframes of the project, not the SME drive timing and delivery. 

We prepare a initial delivery with media. If delivery times demand it we often force the SME and stake holders to approve audio script at this point and record and include audio in the initial delivery. Occasionally this backfires and some audio has to be redone but we find using "time is of the essence" strategies help people get focused. We often have another facilitated meeting to review the deliverable to drive out concerns and changes. It is important to have all the important stakeholders in the room during this session.

We then prepare a final delivery and try to stick to the "final" part of it. Occasionally another minor edit and delivery is required but we resist this as much as possible.

Gabriele Dovis (italgo)

Brian Sullivan said:

We try to determine audience, learning objectives, customer time frame and budget up front. This should be determined by the project initiator/owner -- not usually by the SME. We use a facilitated/structured meeting/interview with SME to gather initial information (assuming we are starting with an almost clean slate). We video tape the interview and use that as a basis to create a raw script/storyboard.


Hi Brian, thanks for the reply. From your response I understand that you adopt a very well structured plan, but I think it also requires time and maybe sometimes several meetings. In my case (tutorial software development courses) the SME are internal to my company and they make telephone support on the same softwares for what I do e-learning courses.

The problem is always that (they say) they can not detach from the phone and spend time in the drafting of the script.

Brian Sullivan

If they can't spare a couple of scheduled hours during the course of the project then I think you have to involve the project sponsor who might be able to apply a lever.

The key though is making whatever time you have with the SME count and have them feel that it is productive. That is why the structure is important.

Michael Thiemann

We are also working with busy SMEs that have little or no time to devote to eLearning development so it is a challenge.  our audience is mostly internal, and our SMEs are the module producers so rather than getting to in between knowledge flow, our method is to emphasize to SMEs first the benefits (SME can provide better service, save time, improve impact) of re-producing what they know into eLearning, keeping it as simple as possible for the SME by providing ample tech and admin support on demand, and we don't try to create the "Mona Lisa" of eLearning modules everytime.   A pretty consistent policy of "good enough" keeps things moving and our content changes often enough that we can't spend long periods revising things, our content people need to be the ones producing this stuff. 

In short, what we do is have our SMEs identified and that all stakeholders agree this is the person who is responsible for this bit of knowledge/expertise.  We meet, usually virtually, with the SME to review the topic, the learning needs, the audience, objectives, etc....and develop a basic "agenda" for how the knowledge can best be communicated (breaking larger blocks into shorter modules)...and then I task the SME to create in PPT what they want to say, just including simple text and perhaps any key graphics they like, not formating or any polish needed.  I want them focusing on the CONTENT, not the style.  They can use articulate to record basic script notes if they like to, but not always necessary.  I will often review the first draft PPT with them to hone the basic content on the slides and the flow of the learning expereince.

We then oursource all the polishing of the slides into a well done presentation.  ( I use great services sourced in Asia for this kind of work, very good very cheap...another story).  If they do record any script notes, we also have those transcribed and then plugged into the notes section on the PPT slide for the SME to then to edit down.  Though, mostly they don't do the script part, as they know the content well enough and can "shoot from the hip". 

Then the SME records the Articulate module off of the polished PPT and we are a go.  Any quiz questions are also developed with SME and we have our support guys plug these into the final module.  All throughout any support on the technical tools or administratively we have on demand for the SME to access.  They end up using this, but not so much (moslty psychologically there to help them getting over the hump of new technology)...the tools are pretty simple once you get using them. 

The end product for us it multi-fold:  We have a live presentation (PPT) materials ready to use for live workshops on the content, we have an SME well versed in delivering the content; and we have an Articulate module that is "good enough" for folks to get in and start using. We keep all modules as brief as possible, so the SME usually produce several to add up to a more robust body of knowledge.  SMEs are then also tasked with "maintaining" the content too, updating and changing the materials as needed (also simple and easy to do on a slide by slide basis in Articulate), so the entire knowledge base is kept fresh, accessible, and asyncronous for users. 

Hope this quick explaination helps you figure a way forward with your own org.

Sammy Hwang

Hello, Michael. Your posting clearly shows one of the difficulties that instructional designers have to deal with. It is critical to make a good relationship with a subject matter expert (sme). Especially subject matter experts are really busy people, then the situation is even more crucial. In my case, my first subject matter experts are really collaborative and I really like the way she teaches class when I observe her training classroom. Thus, I kept telling her that we need to make your online course as good as your face-to-face one. Yet, she is still busy and I still have difficulty finding appropriate time for both of us. I hope it will get better as I gain more experience.

Gabriele Dovis (italgo)

Hello guys,
here's how I have to work: my company distributes software products from another house, and makes assistance (primarily telephone). We also organize start-up and and study live courses.

The service departments prepare scripts accompanied by some images that make up the manual for clients.
These scripts are the answer to the problems who are most often experienced from our customers.

Since my employer does not want to give time to departments for the preparation of an ad hoc script, my job is to take these documents and transform them into good material for elearning and then produce the course.

Then I ask to add a few notes, such as the course objectives or terms to be included in a glossary, or quiz questions, etc..

One of the problems is that there are not enough pictures in the script to refer. Keep in mind that I do not know how to use the software for which I have to prepare the courses, and very often I do not know for example how to open a screen or how to fill another one (all steps that the departments take for granted -
and mistakenly believe to be obvious also for customers).
In these cases, I have to pick up the phone and ask for help (
that I risk of get it even after one day because of the ever busy lines).

For example, I read this sentence above: "We meet, Virtually Usually, with the SME to review the topic, the learning needs, the audience, Objectives, etc".
In my case, this is utopia. The time I can spend with SME is about 15/20 minutes before starting the course production.

Steve Flowers

SME's are busy by nature I've found it's easiest to schedule time wherever possible and prepare exercises that help to answer the most important open questions within one hour (or less if you don't have that amount of time). As an SME myself, I can tell you that if you aren't in my windshield I'm not going to make the time, but if you schedule the time I'll commit and you get 100% of my attention for a short while. There is only one priority:) As a designer, I need 100% attention for short birsts of SME time. There's plenty I can do offline to prepare for optimized sessions. Most of the time the SME really appreciates the compressed focus.

Working offline through email works with some SME's. I've found I get responses about 20% of the time for brief questions, 70% of the time if I state some urgency. But in collaborative meetings, I get 100% response. For this type of SME, I'm sure to come prepared so we can get the best use of that face-time.

Diane Smith

I agree!  Preparation is the KEY to working with SMEs.  Even if you know nothing about the topic, you should prepare yourself with questions to ask about it.  

SMEs are very busy people - after all, there's a reason they are called subject-matter EXPERTS. Chances are they are answering questions from everyone else in their division about the very same thing you want to ask them. 

As Instructional Designers and learning experts, we need to respect their time by being prepared to ask meaningful questions within their realm of expertise. It doesn't hurt to ask questions that may be slightly beyond their scope of knowledge also, because they may be able to refer you to other experts who can help on your project. 

To make the most of the short, dedicated time you have with your SME, make a list - then make an appointment, as Steve suggests.