Thursday, February 21, 2008

Working Efficiently with the SME

What does it take to clap? Just two hands, right? Think again. Try clapping by using one of your hands and one hand of a friend. Even if you succeed a few times, sustaining it is very difficult. You need perfect coordination and timing. Course development is no different--in some ways at least. It takes an equal contribution from a subject matter expert (SME) and a learning designer (LD) to create effective learning material.

So what’s the contribution of each? The simplest answer to this question is “what” and “how.” The SME decides what is to be taught and the LD decides how to teach it. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. For most SMEs, making courses is not a full time profession. For most LDs, it is. Therefore, SMEs availability, responsiveness, understanding of the process, understanding of the role of an LD, and similar issues become showstoppers and often lead to delays, deterioration of quality, and frustration.

In such situations, the LD needs to synergize with the SME by following specific strategies. A LD works closely with the SME for at least two and a half months. In most cases, having a professional yet friendly relationship works better than a dry transaction-based association. Since it’s rare to meet the SME in person, making friends with them is challenging. Here are some tips for LDs to have a good professional relationship with SMEs:

  • Know your SME/CW: Collect as much information as you can about the CW— their likes and dislikes, preferred time slots, mode of communication, family, beliefs, etc. Use Internet, their CV, and be attentive in the calls to collect this information. However, don’t ask direct questions to collect personal information—some of them will not be comfortable in sharing the same.
    Document and use this information smartly during the course development. For example, if your CW does not work on Tuesdays and Wednesday, you could expect faster turnaround from them on those days as compared to Mondays.
  • Always keep commitments: If you have committed to send a document on a date, meet that. In rare cases, when you can’t, tell them in advance so that they could adjust their time accordingly. You will notice that they will start keeping commitments when you will do the same.
  • Speak like an expert: Most SMEs don’t understand the value an instructional designer adds to the course development. They feel that the LD is there to do language checks and formatting for them. Therefore, when it comes to presentation of content, you should take the charge. Feel free to suggest new teaching strategy to the CW. For example, an interactive game in the classroom is a better strategy than a boring lecture. However, you should never advice a CW on a technical aspect in the course. If something feels illogical, ask a polite question.
  • Care for their feelings: After you write each e-mail to the SME, think about how the person will feel after reading the e-mail considering his personality and circumstances (which you would know if you follow point# 1). Then, rewrite or rephrase portions of the email so that all negative feelings generative elements are avoided. Also explain the workaround to them, which clarifies the adjustment you have made to accommodate their schedule (or any other limitation.) The bottom line is to make them feel part of the team and synergize with them.
  • Watch your tone: Since the primary mode of communication between you and the SME will be e-mail, you need to be very careful with the tone. Consider the following example:

    “Please submit the deliverable positively by Monday.” Although this sentence starts with a ‘please’, it has an authoritative tone. However, changing one or two words here and there would not change the tone. For example, even when you remove the word “positively” or make it into a question form (Could you please submit the deliverable by Monday?), the implied tone is still authoritative.

    Now consider the following sentences:

    “Since, Wednesday is our drop-dead date for the client submission, having the deliverable from your side on or before Monday will ensure that we will do our internal checks and meet Wednesday’s deadline. I don’t like making you work on the weekend . So please share if you have any thoughts of avoiding it and still meeting the deadline.”

    You would have noticed that a lot of information has been added in the improved example. Most of the times, sharing the big picture and giving a rationale for an expected date helps. This may not be necessary for a SME who does not want to know.
  • Stay in touch: Some SMEs complain that they are not contacted for a long period and all of a sudden they are expected to submit a deliverable with an unreasonable turn around time. Therefore, it’s a good idea to stay in touch with them.

    It is suggested that a 10 min status call is conducted every week, in which the SME is informed about the development and the concerns are addressed. Make sure that the time and day of the call is decided beforehand and the call does not get longer than 10 minutes, unless the SME want it to go longer.
  • Avoid multiple touch points: With a number of people working on the project, it becomes difficult for SMEs to remember each one’s role. Therefore, only the LD should interact with the SME on a regular basis while the rest should work in the background. However, escalation routes should be told to the SME so that they can complain to the relevant people if and when required.

To summarize, it does take two hands to clap. But when one hand is LD's and the other one belongs to the SME, it is the LD who needs to put in extra effort and synchronize with SME. This extra effort results in creation of effective learning material--something that looks good, sounds good, and acheives the learning outcomes.


Manish Mohan on February 21, 2008 at 3:00 PM said...

Great points Ranit. I quite liked the practical examples you provided to change the tone of emails. That is a great example.

Speakng like an expert is very important. It is critical that you do your homework before any interaction with the SME. We must read enough to get basic understanding of the content. It is not enough to say that SME will provide content. At the end of the day, you can create a better instructional product if we contribute as much as the SME.

I would also like to add building your own credibility in this list. It is important to provide your own introduction to the SME. Use this interaction to build your own credibility with the SME. These could be your past relevant experience or your relevant education background.

Demonstrating your passion for the end product is another sure way of engaging the SME in providing your with inputs.

Ranit on February 22, 2008 at 10:21 PM said...

I agree with your points Manish. Basic content familarity is a must so that both speak the same language.

Credibility can be built through backgound sharing and established through ongoing value add.
Thanks again for the encouraging words.

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