Good SME Relationships Start with Clear, Open Communication – by Pamela S. Hogle

Working with subject matter experts (SMEs) is an essential—and often challenging—element of most instructional design projects. The ID can’t get the content she needs without the participation of one or more SMEs. Fostering good relatonships with SMEs is often instrumental to meeting project goals, budgets, and timelines.

The eLearning Guild turned to its members for tips on managing relationships with SMEs, and the responses poured in. Practical Tips for Instructional Designers Working with SMEs, a Guild white paper available for free download, presents many of the tips that members shared. Much of that advice centers on improving communication. These five strategies might help open communication lines and avoid misunderstanding.

5 strategies for working with SMEs

  • Start with empathy. SMEs are busy, and you might be asking them to spend a large chunk of time on your project. Empathy can go a long way here, whether it’s showing that you value the SME’s expertise and input, acknowledging that you’re making a significant request, or simply figuring out how to get them excited about the project. Maybe they’re frustrated with the huge number of errors they have to fix or get dozens (or hundreds!) of questions from confused employees. Convincing them that the eLearning you’ll jointly create can solve a real problem might be the way to get an SME excited about your project.
  • Be clear. Keep your communications clear and brief. Knowing what you need and why, at the outset, will ensure you are tapping the right SMEs. Use a launch meeting to set out expectations—specify what you need from each SME, and when; explain the change request process; stipulate any constraints or essential information. If you need information by a specific time, say that up front. When you send a reminder, put the deadline in the subject line of your email. Schedule short check-ins and status meetings, and send regular updates as the project progresses.
  • Be honest. Don’t over-promise or sugar-coat; tell people what you need and why. Build in some “padding” to schedules. Making a scenario seem too rosy will backfire if an important deadline is missed or the ideal solution is impossible to create with the budget and resources available. The flip side, making the situation seem too dire, can reduce motivation and be a drag on team performance.
  • Be open to others’ ideas. Setting up clear expectations from the project kick-off includes establishing who has decision-making authority. Within those parameters, it’s still possible to consider others’ ideas. Maybe the SME has a suggestion that can streamline the project or highlight an essential process or concept. Listening and considering the suggestion rather than dismissing it out of hand can reinforce mutual respect, build the relationship, and, just maybe, surface a great idea.
  • Respect communication preferences. While in-person meetings are an important way to make sure everyone is in agreement on content, process, or other project elements, it’s also important to know and respect team members’ preferences. If your SME prefers phone calls—or only uses email or texts—then pare back the meetings and take care of smaller questions and issues using the preferred method. That said, if disagreement or misunderstandings arise, these should be resolved in person whenever possible.

Clear communication shows respect for the SME’s position and expertise, helps avoid errors or misunderstandings that can cause a project to fail, and can enhance the partnership—turning what could be a reluctant SME into a true collaborator on a successful eLearning project.

Download your copy today

Practical Tips for Instructional Designers Working with SMEs is available for free download. Get your copy today and discover dozens of tips and great advice from fellow eLearning Guild members and L&D peers.

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