About E-learning

How to work with SMEs so that everyone leaves happy

"All of this information must be included in the course! Your course is too fun, this is a serious matter! I don't have time to review scripts! You have not followed any of my suggestions!"

Sounds all too familiar, right? Creating a learning activity requires us to work with subject matter experts, which always leads to conflict, frustration, extra development time and in general makes our work lives (is there any other kind?) miserable.

We at INTEA have been in different situations and in general our experience has been more positive thanks to a few key principles that we will share with you. Hope it helps!

Train your experts.

They are not professional educators, they never wanted to be and their personality could be optimal for their job while at the same time counterproductive to being a good coach. Let's accept this fact and instruct them on how learning works while establishing ourselves as experts in our field. An expert to expert talk is always better than an expert to some “learning person”.

Here's what you absolutely need to do:

  • Provide examples of relevant learning activities. It will set expectations and help you get on the same page. Don't assume they know what a “course” is or even what a “video-based training” looks like etc.
  • Explain the process from A to Z - not just the part the expert is supposed to be involved in. Explain how much (or, in fact, how little when it comes to working with INTEA) time the SME shall spend working with you. Demonstrate that you value their time as much as their input and let them plan ahead.
  • Share a project plan, including a list of people and roles. This will help both draw lines in the sand (in case the expert want to be over-involved) and assure the expert that they don't have to do more than absolutely necessary (in case they don't want to).

Tame your experts.

You want to get on their good side. A happy expert is your champion inside the organisation, a source of future projects and valuable references. An unhappy expert can stop a project in its tracks.

Here's what we usually do:

  • Try and dive into the subject matter to some degree before we meet (Wikipedia is often a good place to start). This helps us understand how “a normal learner” would feel, gather questions, encounter abbreviations and lingo and most importantly demonstrate our interest to the SME.
  • Come prepared. Think of it as a sales meeting or a job interview - you want to sell your ideas as valid and yourself as a learning professional. Worst thing you can do is to spend 10 tedious minutes trying to launch a course that “could be a great example of what we could do”. Instead, prepare a presentation, prepare all demo links in advance and rehearse your pitch.
  • Prepare questions. You should already have a content plan or at least set of business / learning objectives. So don't open with “What can you tell me about XYZ”? This shows you as weak and put the SME into the driving seat and we don't want that, do we?
  • Demonstrate the benefits. Again, this comes down to selling the project. What does the expert want? How will the e-learning project make their life easier? Less travel? Better prepared classroom audience? Less silly questions over email and phone? More recognition, fame, political power? Make sure you find out and use this information. And remember – all experts love to be recognized so give credit where it's due. Front page of the course works great.

Trick your experts.

In our experience, the biggest bone of contention between you and the SME is the amount of information that has to be included in the course. Typically, a SME will insist that “everything is important” and “they should know everything”. Instead of arguing about this, we employ a set of subtle tactics:

  • Define levels of knowledge not unlike the level of foreign language competence and assign ALL information (we don't want to cut out anything, do we? wink-wink) to those levels. Then agree that your e-learning project will train, say, levels 1 to 3, while leves 4 to 5 will be reserved for future classroom activities and level 6 - to top level experts like your SME.
  • Map all information to the actions that learners take to achieve their goal. Any information that is required for the action goes into the course. Anything else is “good to have” and can be added as external links. A win-win right there.
  • Set up a face-to-face meeting. Not just a courtesy but it will actually take the home-field advantage away from your SME. They are really good at writing, commenting and arguing, and it is really easy for them to push their agenda over email. In real life, they might be much more reasonable and agree to many of your ideas on the spot. Don't forget to follow-up with a written summary though!

Hope this helps!

This article is based on a discussion in the INTEA Breakfast Club. Subscribe below to receive updates and invites to our future events.

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