Harvesting Your SME’s Brain

One of the great things about working in the eLearning field is the variety it affords. In the last year, for example, I have developed eLearning courses or online job aids that teach people how to: use software; manage greenhouses; work safely with hazardous materials; provide support for individuals with special needs; design landscapes; run a small business; produce food safely; and communicate effectively. I am not a subject matter expert (SME) in any of these areas, but I worked with people who are. My job is to “harvest” the SME’s brain in their area of expertise and to translate this into an effective eLearning experience for a targeted group of learners.

Working with SMEs on eLearning projects can be challenging. Firstly, helping you with your eLearning project is usually just one of many things on their to-do list (and usually far down that list). Secondly, they are experts in their particular subject area, and usually know little about how people actually learn. These factors – limited time, and limited knowledge of learning processes – often means that you may not get what you need, when you need it, to keep your eLearning development project on track. My discussions with other eLearning developers bear this out; SMEs are quite often the biggest bottlenecks in holding up projects.

What’s to be done to avoid the SME bottleneck?

1. Be Proactive in Getting What You Need

Don’t wait for an SME to send you his or her “stuff.” You may be waiting a long time. Set up appointments to interview the SME or SMEs (if more than one). Write up your notes, send back to the SME(s), get their reaction, and set up new appointments for refinements. The key is not asking them to be writers (most find this terrifying and will put it off for as long as possible). You want them to be resource people and reviewers in order to make the best use of their time and your time.

2. Use Templates to Focus the SME’s Attention

Don’t give the SME a blank slate or you don’t know what you are going to get. I often use templates (e.g. script outlines, story-boards, outline documents, etc.) that clearly lay out a plan of instruction and learner engagement for an eLearning intervention. There are clearly labeled spots in the template that require SME input. By focusing their attention on exactly what you need, you are more likely to get it (on the first try, as opposed to the fourth).

3. Focus on Context, Not Just Content

SMEs love their area of expertise (that’s why they are SMEs!). Unfortunately, this often leads to an obsession with content and an inability to tease out what is truly important (e.g. what the learner “must be able to do,” vs. what is “nice-to-know”). So it is your job as an eLearning developer to get them to focus on the application of knowledge, as opposed to a recitation of knowledge. Ask them for stories, cases, anecdotes, etc., that speak to the “doing,” not just the “knowing.” This will bring your eLearning to life. Don’t worry, SMEs usually have lots of stories to tell from their experience, which you can draw upon (changing the names, of course).

Following these tips will:

  • Make the SME’s job, and your job, easier
  • Help you keep to your eLearning project development schedule
  • Lead to a better quality final product
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