Common SME Catchphrases and How eLearning Designers Can Respond

As learning designers, our success hinges on the rapport we build with a client’s Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). It is just as important as the content inputs they provide! But what can you do when a conversation takes an unexpected turn?

Here are a few common challenges we hear in conversations with SMEs, and what we can say to keep the discussion focused and productive.

1. “They should already know this stuff.”

This type of comment shows that the SME has given thought to the learner’s overall learning journey, even beyond the confines of the current program. They may have done some homework by looking up relevant courseware from separate training programs. But the risk is in a designer taking this as the absolute truth without probing deeper.

Ask the SME how the typical learner would already be familiar with the material. Is it covered in a separate training program? Is it implied based on the seniority of the targeted role? Is it an industry standard? Verifying assumptions helps define pre-requisites that ensure learners start on an even playing field. It is also worth discussing the likelihood of exceptions. What happens when an enrolled learner does not have the prerequisite knowledge? Could additional summary guides be prepared? Might a separate learning track be created?

2. “This topic won’t need a lot of time.”

SMEs are typically selected for their deep expertise. But sometimes this can amplify the illusion of transparency, a cognitive bias where we overestimate how well others will understand information, we have already mastered ourselves. In this way, a SME’s expertise can become an obstacle!

Ideally, you can run a pilot to collect feedback directly from target learners. If this is not in the project plan, consider asking questions up front that will validate the SME’s intuition. For example, if someone requested to meet with them for help on this subject, how long would they schedule the meeting for? If they were preparing a presentation on this topic, how many slides would they create? And remember, as e-learning designers we can advocate for the learner by nature of our shared lack of understanding! We are often novices in the subject matter ourselves, which is a helpful lens for gauging how approachable a topic may be for another newcomer.

3. “We already have slides on this.”

SMEs may also be selected to support a new development because they helped create related training in the past. They may even currently be facilitating sessions! In any case, it is likely they have already invested time and energy anticipating exactly how training should look. There can be an element of personal attachment involved when deciding what stays and what goes.

Start by requesting access to the content in its existing format and scheduling a walkthrough of the materials. This helps you understand the content fully, and it also lets the SME feel heard. Set expectations early that the content will not necessarily stay in the same format. Ask questions like: Have they received any feedback about the way they are training on this currently? Have they ever tried putting this content in a different format? Why or why not? This type of questioning will empower you as an e-learning designer to make informed recommendations about modality and other treatments.

4. “ALL of these topics are very important.”

SMEs are content guardians, and often self-appointed protectors of the original ideas list. They might assume anything marked “low importance” will not be included. Further, SMEs may be concerned about the optics around their evaluations and potential reputational impact. For example, if their supervisor will be reviewing their inputs later, they do not want to inadvertently undermine the significance of key procedures or initiatives. Hence, sometimes SMEs tend to err towards over-rating.

“Important” means different things in different contexts. Compare a system navigation mistake that locks someone out for 30 minutes to a mistake on a construction site that results in injury or death. The goal is not to discredit the SME’s evaluations, but rather to bring nuance to it – which can inform seat time allocations. Start by asking about relative consequences: What is the worst that could happen if this task is done incorrectly? What is the cost of the mistake, either to the company or to individuals? What is the probability of this mistake happening? If a SME continues to insist all components are extremely important, loop in the Project Manager. It is time for a conversation about potential impact to program duration, timeline, and cost.

5. “This reminds of a crazy time when…”

SMEs have seen just about everything in their career experience… and have the stories to prove it! Some of the most enjoyable learning involves story-based examples and situated practice opportunities, so these anecdotes could prove useful! However, remember you likely have finite time available with SMEs, and should use every minute productively. Occasionally, try to jump in with questions like: Would this be a strong example to share with learners? Could they see this working as a case study in the course? What was a major lesson learned from this experience? If the SME does not have good answers to these questions, that’s your cue to refocus the conversation.

Keeping these scenarios in mind and creating a continuous channel of active communication will certainly help you create great learning content and an amazing learning experience for your learners!

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