Communicating with SMEs

Communication
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A large part of what I do as an instructional designer is working with SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). These are the people we hire because they have the deep knowledge of a specific area. In my company, they also often eventually serve as facilitators for the course. Of course, some SMEs are easier to work with than others, and every SME has individual quirks that I need to figure out to work with them successfully. One of the great things about our team is that we spend a lot of time discussing our SMEs and sharing ideas and strategies. Even though I’d worked with SMEs before, I feel like I’ve learned more from my experiences in the last year, and I know that bouncing ideas off the others on the team is a big part of that.

I want to start recording some of the strategies that have worked (and some of the ones that haven’t) here, to clarify my own “lessons learned.” This won’t be a structured series the way my Instructional Design careers set was where I had all the posts planned out in advance. I haven’t organized my thoughts that well yet–that’s what I’m going to use the blog for. So, please forgive me if they seem a bit unstructured.

And now for the first strategy…

One of the most helpful strategies I’ve used is asking SMEs directly how they best communicate. Yes, the strategy is that simple: Ask how they want to communicate. So much of the success of the relationship rests on how well we communicate with each other. I try to ask this question during my introductory phone call with the SME. At this point in the process, I’m mostly just looking for the technology: email, phone, IM, Skype, etc. I can work through any of those methods, but I need to know what’s going to be best for the SME. I’ve had several SMEs who really need to talk through ideas on the phone; they need that interplay with a live person, and they need the auditory to make connections. I’ve had others who did almost everything in writing, usually through email with a little IM. Knowing that upfront means I don’t waste time writing long emails to a SME who really needs to hear my feedback on the phone.

As the development progresses, I try to refine the communication a bit more. On one of the very first projects I worked on with a SME, I gave my initial feedback in long paragraphs. My observations were mixed in with what I needed him to do next, and none of it was particularly succinct. I did a lousy job of communicating what I wanted, but fortunately that SME called me up and told me point blank that he didn’t understand. After that, I gave him bullet points spelling out specifically what I needed changed, plus we went over the to-do list on the phone. I’d never give a SME a rambling paragraph like that now, but I do try to tailor my feedback. Some SMEs really need hard deadlines to work to, but I’ve had others who do better with some flexibility. Some need me to break down the goals and give them very detailed tasks, but others would go crazy if I micromanaged them that much.

It can be tricky to find the right communication method and style with SMEs, but I do find it’s getting easier with time. I learn something new from every SME I work with, and I feel like I’m accumulating enough of a “bag of tricks” now that I have strategies for most situations.

If you have a great strategy for communicating with SMEs, I’d love to hear about it.

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2 thoughts on “Communicating with SMEs

  1. Christy,
    I have learned something from you that I can implement next week. I’m gearing up to begin our largest annual training project. It’s not until March but it takes months to prepare. I will work with about 15 different SMEs again to create a 3-day training. I always have communications issues and my response has been to become more hard nose about when and how we will communicate. Guess I try to take more control. Last year I felt at times like a bully and it didn’t do me any good.

    Your post makes me realize that I’m going about this all the wrong way. I will try it differently this time. I will ask each one of them what works best for *them*. Of course I’ll have to make a cheat sheet to keep track of who want what! Great suggestions. Thanks!

  2. Angela,

    I’m glad to hear it’s helpful! Sometimes it is the simplest ideas that make the most difference. The spreadsheet is a great idea too, especially if you have lots of SMEs.

    Some of your SMEs may be surprised or caught off guard by the question–I’ve had some who obviously weren’t expecting to have this asked as a straightforward question.

    I’ve come to realize that I personally get really irritated when people play “mind-reading games” though. It drives me crazy when people don’t tell me what they want and expect me to read their mind or guess it. I’m guilty of it too though, and I’m trying to work on not playing those games myself. This is part of that effort. It makes my job easier if SMEs tell me how they like to get feedback, but how are they going to know to tell me if I don’t ask them?

    A wise friend once advised me to “Ask for 100% of what you need, 100% of the time.”

    Post to your blog once you get into your project–I’d love to hear how this works for you!

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