We've partnered with hundreds of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) over the years, and we need each other. In the end, we want the same thing: a dynamic learning experience that captures the audience's attention and makes a meaningful difference.
Instructional designers and SMEs bring different strengths and information to the project. The learning design expert can build an innovative, beautiful framework, but without the content expert's contribution, the structure could easily crumble.
Here's more about what I've learned from collaborating with subject matter experts...
Understand your roles.
Instructional designers are not often experts in the content areas they write about, nor should they expect to become experts. As an ID, I want to learn as much as possible in order to create a learning experience that's meaningful for the audience.
When I begin working with a SME, I make an effort to get to know what she's responsible for at work, how she likes to collaborate—email, texting, phone calls?—and how she sees herself contributing to the project. I explain that her expertise will enable me to do my job: organizing and creating a fabulous training program for her business.
It's mostly about respect.
Regard SMEs as true experts. Sometimes they bring 30 years of detailed knowledge to the project! Even if this knowledge comes to me in the form of a pile of printed materials thicker than my tallest coffee mug, I still take the time to look over the information the SME compiled. By building respect with the SME, I also improve my access to reliable resources that I'll need to accomplish our goals.
Keep the lines of communication open.
Even after our official discovery period is over, I make sure that SMEs know they can contact me by phone, email, Skype, or in-person meetings as needed. I find that SMEs are very receptive to answering questions and providing additional details when I run into roadblocks, even if I'm in the middle of developing a course.
Guide the conversation.
It's important to respect the SME's expertise, but make sure that he understands the big picture for the training program. Guide the conversations and ultimately design the course only using the content that supports the learning objectives. If multiple SMEs are involved and they're saying different things, as the ID it's my responsibility to actively listen to seek clarification and consistently.
Engage your curiosity.
Demonstrating sincere curiosity and asking intelligent questions are essential for instructional designers. Sometimes SMEs are so knowledgeable that they forget the rest of us don't know the inner workings of a solar panel system, a human resources certification process, or what certain technical acronyms stand for. I am never afraid to ask for clarification or an alternative explanation.