Four tips for designing learning without SMEs

By Carole Bower April 09, 2015


Missing person posterTraditionally, designing learning materials in the workplace context has relied on organisational subject matter expertise, with the job of extracting content from Subject Matter Expert (SME) falling to the learning designer. This has often been a challenging process. But just lately that challenge got even stickier.

Because SMEs are disappearing.

In today’s frenetic business climate, getting sufficient access to SME resource has become much harder to achieve, since these valued experts are invariably too busy to support the design team in the traditional way.

In many instances, too, we find that the SME doesn’t actually sit within the client business and their expertise needs to be bought in, so their time comes with a real cost attached to it (at Lumessse we have had this experience with subjects as diverse as marketing, team effectiveness and cloud computing).

So given that the change isn’t likely to be reversed anytime soon, how can we make the best of the situation and still produced engaging, effective learning?

Our tips for designing learning in an SME-less universe

1. Design around the issue

When designing a learning intervention with limited SME availability you can consider shaping the whole approach based around this availability. It might seem a bit controversial to say this; shouldn’t we be choosing the content based on what is most appropriate for the learners? Yes, however the availability of the subject matter expertise might have to dictate the shape of the final product as if you cannot deliver then you’ll end up with something that is less effective anyway.

One way around this is to design something where the learner gets access to the required expertise through social channels. For instance, in a situation where subject matter expertise is extremely limited you might want to consider creating an Expert Video Wall or channel. SMEs answer some pre-recorded questions and we capture these in a video and build a structure around them, using collaborative and social channels to allow the knowledge sharing and support to develop from there.

3. Become the SME

For the modern day learning designer, expert research skills are key. The internet offers a wealth of information and designers can often be called on to play the role of content curator. This involves validating, reading, collecting and organising both online and offline material – and contextualising this in the learning. We’ve worked on a number of leadership courses recently where this was the case.

3. Work with what you have

If the SME time is limited then make the most of the time that you have. Plan the sessions with them well so that you know all the information that you need to get out. Record these sessions so that you replay every word without having to go back to plugs any gaps you missed.

Introduce more Agile working practices with frequent Scrum meetings. These keep a regular dialogue going that allows you respond to change quickly and without sucking up huge amounts of time.

4. Keep the learner at the heart of it all

In an ideal world we would have access to the learner during much of the development process. Only the learner really understands what they need to know to do their job and only the learner can give us a real insight around any skills gaps. Although of course we recognise that in some instances they don’t know what they don’t know!

When writing learning materials the learning designer has to build on their own knowledge. Sometimes this will be from a standing start – i.e. no knowledge of the subject at all. The research conducted is then completely personal to them and them only. Each bit of information helps them understand the content and builds up on their existing knowledge. However, despite having to learn the subject too, they are still not necessarily representative of the audience. Neither is the SME, for that matter. How do we ensure that the learner is represented in the design process?

Having learners in the room with the designer and SME at some point is invaluable and helps to ensure the content stays relevant to them. They bring context to the process and are able to say; I don’t need to know that; that’s not as important to me as that area; I don’t understand that presented in that way; how do I apply that to this part of my role … and so on. If you can facilitate this process with the SME and the learner you’ll ensure no assumptions or irrelevant content items creep in.

The way forward

Reflecting on a long career working with SMEs, I can’t stress enough how much smoother things go if a learner can be involved in the process. We (SMEs, learning designers and stakeholders) always focus on the profile of our target audience, but how often do we get the get the luxury of actually hearing from our learners? Surely, the best insights come from observing the SME actually teaching the learner and answering their questions.

Where it is a herculean task to extract the subject matter expertise in the first place, as is increasing the case, then in many instances there is an opportunity to curate the content yourself – even if it is about bio-synthetic polymers! Content curation is yet another string to the learning designer’s bow, if a fairly new one.

Watch out for a further post from us very soon on content curation.

Comments 1

  1. I very much like your comment about adding learners to the creation process. Also, capturing SMEs in video and audio is a great way to preserve especially valuable expertise and treasured experts.

    The fact that SMEs are “going missing” is indeed a huge issue. I wrote a book on Working with SMEs with tips, tools and tricks for overcoming obstacles, particularly SMEs who don’t have time to work with you. It has led me to research this issue which is resulting in a follow-up book called Finding Your SMEs. So yes, this is a huge problem and sometimes we have to do research and become our own experts as much as possible. I, too, wrote a leadership module from simply studying the topic and distilling what appeared to be the best of the genre. I did that with time management and project management, as well. That is easier to do with soft skills than if you are training in, say, a manufacturing environment or some other technical area where there is no substitute for someone who is a true expert in the field.

    One caveat as I have had to research and write entire programs based on what I can find is to beware that “book learning” is not a perfect substitute for real experience. Whenever possible, get as much feedback as you can from a real, live SME even if it is just to validate what you’ve done. Again, it goes to your idea that SMEs can be preserved digitally and the material curated in a knowledge management system.

    Thank you for allowing me to comment here. This topic obviously caught my eye as I was scanning today!

    Have a great day!

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