Learning trends

Top tips for a beautiful e-learning relationship: how to successfully collaborate with SMEs

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Collaborate with SMEs

How many times have you struggled to pin down a Subject Matter Expert when it comes down to teasing out that much-needed expertise you need for the e-Learning solutions you’re developing? An unnecessary friction has evolved between the much sought after Subject Matter Expert (SME) and the L&D professional in many businesses today.

Training production is an increasingly collaborative affair, often involving SME contributions throughout the planning and development cycle, therefore time spent at the start of any project setting out your stall  must be worth it. Taking pains to understand and appreciate what it means for an SME to give you the support and input you would like to ensure project success should be automatic and will help sow the seeds of successful collaboration.

Assumptions are the termites of relationships

Henry Winkler

As many course designers will testify, the experience can be bemusing: after all, their prime objective IS to help lighten the burden of the company’s most experienced by complementing the face-to-face learning experience that SMEs know and understand, with online learning support. So it might seem surprising, if not downright frustrating, that SMEs so frequently take a reluctant stance when it comes to collaboration.

Misunderstanding, mistrust and frustration happen in online content development but virtually no one talks about the conflicts that arise between SMEs and the L&D professional charged with the job of digitising and rolling out the critical information they hold.  So before the rot sets in take a look at this definitive set of guidelines for building successful e-Learning content development relationships with SMEs, and throw those assumptions out of the window.

Five hints to build successful relationships with SMEs

1. Never assume knowledge

Be patient!! Keep in mind that the Subject Matter Expert has a great deal to contribute. Respect his or her content but do elaborate on why you’ve asked for their help, and define the target audience for the course in terms of why, when, where. Today’s learn anywhere, anytime mantra necessitates a new approach to course design, with bite-sized snippets of content accessible from any device, wherever the learner may be, no matter how little time they have.

2. Show off your toolbox

Lack of technical skill translates to extreme defensiveness.Your hard-earned e-learning knowledge and experience will no doubt often appear just as impenetrable to the SME as some of their own expertise may do to you. Time spent demonstrating and explaining your e-learning tool will never be wasted. You will design clearer and more relevant content for your courses if all your SMEs understand how learners will be accessing and engaging with the course content.

3. Manage your talent!

Re-assure the SME you are not out to replace their existing position as a prized expert within the organisation. It’s imperative these key individuals understand that the content they are contributing to will both complement and boost the training they have gained a reputation for delivering already. L&D has made strong headway towards delivering blended learning solutions, and employing in-house subject expertise to design and deliver effective mobile learning will only serve to improve an SME’s internal credibility.

4. Set and Manage expectations

Define the SME’s role in the course development process and make sure that everyone understands it. Set up clear lines of responsibility and ownership, and try to ensure lines of communication remain open between all contributing individuals, thereby avoiding any ‘turf wars’. This should include setting clearly defined “deliverables” upfront before the project gets underway. Ensure these are realistic, sticking closely to the SME’s knowledge area, and phrase your requests for content within structured and specific questions that match the relevant course requirements.

5. Nurture mutual respect….

Just like asking for help from any expert source a little too often, expecting an unreasonable amount of input from any SME will result in delays and radio silence down the track. Remember their efforts on your project will be in addition to their main role, indeed some may see it as a considerable inconvenience to commit large chunks of their time if you are not paying them. Just be considerate and appreciative at all times. On the other hand, if the SME is charging separately for their time, make sure he or she is paid on time at pre-agreed stages of the e-Learning project. Maintain the financial incentive, whilst always endeavouring to foster an environment of mutual respect.