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5 Ways On How Instructional Designers Can Better Engage Their Subject Matter Experts

President Of TrainSmart, Inc.

Walk into a room of e-learning instructional designers and chances are you’ll quickly overhear them sharing war stories of working with Subject Matter Experts who either “sabotaged, abandoned, micromanaged or (fill in the blank.)

Why are these relationships so emotionally charged? For one, it is a critical relationship in any e-learning project. Without a strong partnership with the subject matter expert, the instructional designer is stuck in a rowboat with one oar, praying for a wave to ride them into shore, but realizing more likely, they’re going to be spending a lot of time going around in circles.

Another reason is that IDs and subject matter experts usually approach their work very differently. As Tara Denton Holwegner wrote in 2012, “SMEs are from Mars, Instructional Designers are from Venus.”

The good news is there are some common-sense action steps you can take to create a real partnership with your subject matter experts and it starts with engaging their hearts and minds in the project.

Invest in knowing your Subject Matter Expert – Engage Their Heart

Too often subject matter experts and IDs are so focused on the project and the amount of work that must get don’t that they don’t care, or don’t think they have the time to learn about the person behind the title. For them, it’s strictly a business relationship where the ID needs the information to do her job and the subject matter experts are the keeper of that information.

However, as Meryl Streep said in a commencement speech at Vassar, “Real life is actually a lot more like high school. ” And, high school is all about relationships.

Maybe this is the first time the subject matter experts have been involved in an e-learning project. Maybe their previous experiences did not go well.

Or, maybe they had a wonderful experience and want to duplicate it.

The key is to find out where the subject matter experts is coming from before you launch into the project. Getting a sense of their concerns, biases, and trepidations will help you know how to build the strongest relationship possible with them. Use The Diamond Rule: “Imagine being them, before doing unto them.”

If you’re located in the same city, have a cup of coffee to just get to know each other. If you’re in different cities, do a Skye, WebEx, FaceTime meeting –any platform with video conferencing capability will work. Research shows that when you can see the person you are dealing with, you will build trust faster. For most IDs, speed is of utmost concern.

Like any strong relationship, your subject matter expert will be more engaged in the project if they feel that they are being heard and that their opinions count. It is the job of the instructional designer to make the SME feel valuable.

What do they love about their job? What are their challenges? What do they wish others could understand about their job? Who are they away from work? What do they want to learn about? What is their favorite way to learn?

Understand The Partnership

The subject matter expert has a need to train a group of people about their product, service or organization. Their success depends on your ability to take the information they share and transform it into a training program that is going to get them the results they need.

Maybe they hired you directly and can’t wait to work with you. Maybe their boss hired you and the subject matter expert (SME) is less than enthusiastic about the project because they already have too much to do. Maybe the subject matter expert (SME) doesn’t believe in e-learning and thinks the entire exercise is a big waste of time.

As the instructional designer, once you figure out where they are coming from, you can develop a strategy that has the best chance of becoming a winning strategy for both of you.

Demonstrate Your Professionalism – Engage Their Minds

Prior to the first meeting with your SME, do as much research on the topic as you can. Come into the meeting demonstrating to your SME that you have a basic understanding of the topic, industry, external issues and competition. A good strategy is to provide the SME with a list of questions ahead of time to use as a discussion guide for that first meeting. Asking strong, probing questions will not only get you the information you need, but it will also give the subject matter expert confidence that you are discerning.

What are the key opportunities for the business? What are the barriers? What are the three top facts that the target audience needs to understand in order to achieve success? What are the external factors impacting the product/service/company? Who is the competition? What are their strengths? What is their position in the marketplace?

Demonstrating your expertise as an instructional designer is just part of engaging their minds. You also need to show that you will meet your deadlines, keep your commitments, pay attention to the smallest details, and flawlessly execute your work. It’s amazing how a few unfortunate typos can ruin the credibility you’ve spent weeks developing.

ESTABLISH A SME – ID Work Agreement

Some SMEs want all communication via phone and voicemail. Others want texts or emails. Find out what their communication preferences are. Make sure you know how much time they need to review documents and answer questions. Most SMEs have lots of work and will be fitting this in. Let them tell you how they want you to communicate with them. Perhaps they want you to send a text to tell them you’ve sent an email. Knowing how they like to receive information is going to be half the battle.

While it may seem like overkill to have a work agreement with your SME, it can save a lot of time and misunderstanding. This document should include clear expectations of both the SME and the ID. When each partner shares expectations in writing –‘ I expect my inquiries to be answered within 48 hours, or I won’t review the material over the weekend’ – both parties will know what to expect and will flex their behavior accordingly. Ultimately, both want the project to be a success. Understanding each other’s communication styles will go a long way to creating a productive working relationship.

The work agreement serves an additional purpose: by spelling out the details of how the SME and ID will work together it naturally establishments the foundation for a commitment by the SME to be fully engaged in the process.

Don’t Let Them See You Sweat!

As much as you may want to, try not to show or express your frustration when things don’t go as planned. When has a project ever gone as planned? Sharing your frustration with the SME isn’t going to change the situation. Try to focus on the solutions and remember that Diamond Rule: “Imagine being them, before doing unto them.”

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Leslie has over 25 years experience in the training industry. Her responsibilities have included sales, hands on management and software training, curriculum development, needs analysis, usability testing, and project management. Her strong training background, organizational skills, and exceptional development expertise, augment her extensive sales and marketing abilities.