Do we take our SMES for granted?

Today’s post comes from Fiona Quigley (@fionaquigs), chat2lrn crew member and Unappreciated SMEDirector of Learning Innovation for Logicearth Learning Services. The chat serves two purposes this week.

First – to introduce you to a brilliant DevLearn 2015 session being run by our very own Andrea May, and her able conspirator, Dawn Mahoney.

Entitled, From SME Smackdown to Nirvana, you can read more about it here.

The session runs on October 1st and if any of you are going to DevLearn this year, I’d urge you to consider going to listen to these two fabulously knowledgeable ladies. Andrea and Dawn aim to try to get us out of the ‘kick the SME’ habit and see how we can really get under the hood of what makes them tick.

The second purpose of this blog post is to consider more fully the purpose, role and usefulness of communicating well with the SME.

So that is today’s question. Is the SME a gift that we undervalue?

A SME, in case you aren’t aware is a Subject Matter Expert. Traditionally, it is the person or persons that eLearning folks use to design eLearning content. If you talk to any instructional designer or indeed eLearning project manager, it won’t be long before they are sharing their ‘SME war stories’. In fact, along with the LMS, put a room full of IDs together, and most of the conversations are likely to include SMEs.

The SME is vital to the success of an eLearning project. It is the SME who sets the tone and depth of the content, as well as (hopefully) helping to provide an insight into the target audience. But it is often east meets west when it comes to ID and SME understanding what each needs from the other.

So this week’s chat, I’d like to focus on the relationship of the SME to the eLearning project, and to also think a little beyond the traditional purpose that most of us attribute to the SME.

What is it all about?

If you think about what we demand or need from a SME, it is a bit of a tall order. First and foremost, the SME has a day job. Secondly, they aren’t likely to know much about eLearning, never mind training. Some SMEs are trainers, and this can often help, but by and large, SMEs are ordinary folks who happen to just know a lot about a particular subject.

When you think about the average eLearning project, it is often very time pressured and has a fairly narrow scope in terms of the knowledge and skills we wish to impart. That means from get go, SMEs have to take on a lot of rules in which to impart that knowledge. And most of us involved in learning know that once you put someone under pressure with lots of rules and caveats, it can stiffle communication.

Often SMEs are thrust into the fray because:

  1. No-one else wants to do it
  2. No-one else has time
  3. They didn’t know enough to say no! (or they had no choice)

Understanding where the SME is coming from is a vital first step in building a good relationship. To this end, working along with Dawn and Andrea, we’ve come up with a magnificent seven SME archetypes:

Magnificent 7 SME Archetypes

What we were aiming to do here is to help people think of the SME as someone that we should at least meet half-way. It is important to spend time understanding the SME’s pressures and how to work with them to make imparting their knowledge and insights as easy as possible. We’d argue that it is up to Instructional Designers, along with Project Managers to manage the eLearning development process in such a way that the SME is setup for success.

Everyone is a SME in this modern age!

At a quick glance, you might think we’ve been a bit harsh with the names of our SME archetypes. But on closer inspection, it is more subtle than that. Who hasn’t felt clueless, or unfocussed or a little bit control freakish from time to time on a project? Remember that feeling, because it will help you to help your SME.

However, in this networked world, we’d argue that getting ahead in the workplace is just as dependant on the knowledge and relationships in your network as it is on your own knowledge. A couple of weeks ago, I was interviewing two SMEs and it struck me that the types of precise, targeted questions that I was asking would actually serve me well in most business conversations. Are the skills I use for helping SMEs to impart their knowledge really just good communication and listening skills, and should I apply/practice them more widely?

So join us for #chat2lrn on Thursday September 24th, 8:00 PDT/11:00 EDT/16:00 BST. Can we leverage good SME communication skills to help all of our business relationships?

Internal vs. External

Today’s post comes to us from #chat2lrn crew members, Meg Bertapelle & Holly MacDonald.

Meg is a Senior Instructional Designer of Clinical and Product Education at Intuitive Surgical, a medical device company which makes the da Vinci Surgical System. You can find her on twitter at @megbertapelle

Holly is the owner and principal consultant of Spark + Co, a boutique training company that provides custom training solutions to organizations for employees or customers. You can find her on twitter at @sparkandco  

Startup Stock Photos

Meg and Holly were chatting about the differences between internal and external L+D work, and captured some of their observations in this blog post.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as an internal L+D expert?

Meg: I would have to say that we run so lean sometimes, that our team isn’t able to really do our best work under the timelines & sheer number and scope of projects assigned to us. Always having to compromise on the best solution to get an OK solution out the door eventually gets exhausting.

What’s the biggest challenge you face as an external L+D expert?

Holly: Typically the biggest challenge is communication. Working with such a range of clients, some of whom are brand new to e-learning, others who are familiar with it means that we are constantly having to check assumptions, confirm things and keep those lines of communication open.

How do you deal with analysis as an internal/external?

Meg: Our fall-back position is always surveys and focus-groups, but sometimes the timeline of a given project just doesn’t allow for those methods, and we have to try to extrapolate information about the need from internal folks that work closely with the true audience. Our company just recently created a data analytics group that will work cross-functionally to gather what data we can directly from our products, and will advise on other ways to incorporate data gathering as learning experiences are designed and revised. I’m very excited about this because we might actually get real (not anecdotal) information about the gaps in our current materials and processes.

Holly:I think it’s easier as an external to do analysis, since you need to get information about the client and the learning need before moving ahead. I think as an external, you get more latitude to do an analysis. That being said, sometimes you find out that the problem is not a training one and those are not conversations the client always wants to have. But, if it won’t fix the problem, then they need to know.

What design challenges do you face as an internal/external

Meg: Usually time is my biggest challenge here. I would LOVE to be able to design tons of scenario-based practice activities; link directly to resources; provide everything our learners need in an easily-accessible, SINGLE place; and provide just-in-time and performance support for a truly flexible and end-to-end solution to all of our challenges. It just ends up being impossible while also keeping up with the project load on our team.

Another big challenge for us is that in order to meet deadlines, especially for product-related training materials, we have to split up design & development work between team members, and then struggle with the lack of consistency in the end result.

Like Holly, we have to adhere somewhat to the company brand guidelines, but thankfully (!!) more of the general feeling rather than the “letter of the law.”

Holly: Either the constraints of the “brand guidelines” where the client’s marketing team has decided to apply branding rules to elearning. This can really mean that you aren’t able to get as creative as you’d like. I usually try to find out if there’s a way to adapt the brand guidelines to elearning. To be honest, if not, then I’d actually consider walking away. If the branding overshadows the need to learn, then it can actually be an indicator of an organization that really doesn’t value learning.

The other common constraint is that the budget is not big enough to get custom design assets, so you head into your digital closet to see what you’ve collected and stockpiled over the years to use on the project. One other aspect that I’ve found challenging is to source great designers who get instructional design and/or elearning. I have found a few who kind of get it, but there is sometimes a tension around which designer knows best.

What implementation challenges exist as an internal/external?

Meg: Managing the different permutations of products released where & when – what system, what software version, where is it cleared, where is it launched, in what language… (did you hear that? it was my head exploding)

Holly: The LMS. That’s the biggest challenge we’ve faced with the implementation. Some clients engage us to work on their launch plan with them, but sometimes we hand it off to the LMS Administrator or IT department and that’s the end of it.

What do wish you could do that you can’t as internal/external?

Meg: I think I would love to be able to say “no” to a project that I just don’t want to do. LOL 🙂 Honestly, since my biggest constraint is usually time, and I imagine that’s not that different in an external role, I’m not sure what else to wish for! Hopefully some of you in the chat will give me some good ideas that I can try to make happen internally 😉

Holly: I have been an internal before and I think the thing I miss the most is the ability to modify the program once it’s launched, or having a more flexible role to extend the program. As an external, you live and die by your scope and once the program is launched, it’s gone. We’re very lucky to have long term relationships with our clients, so we do get to do some of that with them. But, for some it’s a budget decision.

What do you think you could teach internal/external?

Meg: I have a lot of “tribal knowledge” of our business, so I think I could help an external person come up with a solution that would fit our organization, and make a business case for it. Sometimes the things that matter to the organization are not as visible to someone external.

Holly: After doing this for so long with many different clients, I think the thing I’ve really mastered is how to understand a client’s business quickly. I get to use my “ignorance card” constantly and coming at things from the perspective where you know little or nothing means you have a unique point of view. I have one client who often says things like: “I love how you make us think about things in ways we haven’t thought before.” When you are internal, it’s much harder to maintain that perspective. You need to find ways to do that consciously, otherwise you just end up making assumptions.

What about you? What have you found to be the benefits and challenges of being either an internal or external learning expert?

Let’s discuss during #chat2lrn on Sep. 10th, 8:00 PDT/11:00 EDT/16:00 BST

Hope to see you there!