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SME Interactions Simplified

E-learning has touched almost every industry in the past couple of decades and continues to do so. With varied audiences, the content also becomes equally diverse. So, developers are often required to create courses on subjects that they have little or no grasp upon.  In such a scenario, a Subject Matter Expert (SME) is often approached, to be the source of all information and the content is extracted out of the interactions with the SME. Seems to be a straightforward enough approach to the problem? Like all things that seem straightforward, there is more to it than a three-step exercise of > Ask Questions > Get Answers > Develop Content.

Choosing the Right SME

  • This often depends on the kind of content to be developed.
    • If the subject matter is very technical or specific to a specialized field, there maybe only a handful of experts to choose from. Availability then plays the key factor in choosing the right SME.
    • The client sanctioning the course may also recommend the SME. This is especially true if the content is organization-specific. This ensures the level of involvement of the SME, in terms of both time and effort.
    • For more generic topics, clients often leave the decision of choosing the right SME to the content developing team. A popular means of selecting a SME is approaching consulting firms which have a team of experts, from various fields, on board. Apart from the required credentials, the necessary involvement of the SME – again, in terms of time and effort, is ensured in such engagements.
  • SMEs from any kind of training background are more tuned to the nuances of an educative module, and can channelize the flow of information accordingly. This might be looking for perfection, but with the growing need of SMEs in content development this group of attuned experts is not a rarity anymore.

Asking the Right Questions

  • A round of questions in the format of an interview is how a SME should be approached for information. These questions should be thought out carefully by the instructional designers, keeping the course and the learning objectives in mind. This gives a direction to the expert and the entire course on the whole.
  • Interacting with experts, a common problem faced is that of ‘too much information’. To weed out the relevant out of the excess is a tedious job and a time consuming one. To save time ask pointed questions, which are more likely to get direct and straightforward answers. For example: ‘Do you think this method has any drawbacks?’ versus ‘List 3 drawbacks of this method’. The latter is more direct while the former is not.
  • Conversely, too much information is better than too little! Sometimes sufficient time needs to be spent with the expert and a number of questions asked before enough information is collated. Weeding out is, after all, a necessary process and the responsibility of the developers, and not the expert.

Practical Approaches to Common Problems

  • The problem of ‘Too Many Experts’: Some courses may require the collaboration between more than one expert and this can be tricky thing!
    • Bringing the involved parties on the same page is of foremost importance. The experts can be from the same field, but may have different experiences to share. These experiences, however, should converge into one common view and that should be expressed to the learners in the module.
    • The right of the ‘final word’ should be established. For instance, one of the experts may know the theory of a concept very well, but the other is conversant with practical functionalities of the concept. So, when developing a module which embraces the functionalities more than the theory, the latter should have the ‘final word’.
  • Building the bridge between Client and Expert: A disconnect between the two can be fatal to the process of content development.
    • All content, after some initial editing and arrangement should be shared with clients to give them a fair idea of what is being developed.
    • Important points or portions should be highlighted, especially parts that form the crux of the learning module.
    • Any serious disconnect needs to be handled carefully, but needless to say, the client has the final say in what is to be covered in the course. Interaction with the SME should then be undertaken accordingly, with suitable changes in kind of information gathered.
  • Elusive SMEs: Keeping up with time-lines is sometimes the biggest challenge when interacting with SMEs
    • Scheduling needs to be done keeping room for flexibility. Some delays will be inevitable and working around them should involve a continuous revision of the schedule.
    • An expert may not be able to ascertain the time involvement that a particular project requires. And she is also not expected to do so. It is the job of the planning team to make that estimation and clear it with the SME. A good estimation of SME involvement is certainly a proven way of avoiding delays.
    • There are also shortcuts that one can take to hasten things up. For instance, reviewing documents can take up long hours. Instead of the SME going through the entire length of a document, one can have a summary reviewed.
    • Another way is to highlight only those portions in a document that require reviewing, keeping the rest of the document in grey – to make sure that a quick look into the highlighted portions is all that is required. This works very well when documents have been going back and forth a lot, and are on the final stages of editing.

SME interaction is a key component of content development and there is a fine balance between the developers and the SME. When maintained well, it ensures the quality and effectiveness of any learning course. At the end of it, if all goes well, is the final product – a learning module, which speaks best to its intended audience.

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