What’s wrong with SMEs?

I have recently read a few rants by instructional designers about subject matter experts (SMEs) who are most unhelpful to the learning design process. There are many articles explaining how to deal with this “problem”, about how we need to “manage” the SMEs and how creative thinking is just not their thing. I’m always sceptical when I hear/read these rants. It just isn’t my personal experience.

Is it because I see the role of the instructional designer as much broader than designing training based on the information provided? I think so.

I found that the best instructional designers have great knowledge and experience across many sectors. That’s why I love working with instructional designers who choose this profession as a second, third or even fourth career – perfect! They adapt, they study, and they make sure they learn the jargon. They become expert “learners” and build credibility for their own skillset as well as for the training subject. They typically have very fruitful and efficient relationships with the SMEs.

We all know that (a) structured and well-prepared SME interview(s) is where it all starts. We should ask the SMEs for the common mistakes, what learners find hard, examples of how learners will use the information and knowledge in the workplace, what happens when they don’t, and so much more.

But that’s not all. Good instructional designers are really pro-active. They read about the subject, look for content and stories on the Web, and are able to present ideas which the SME can improve and correct. It’s so much easier for the SME and saves a lot of time. It makes for better training as well.

Are you an instructional designer? Go easy on the SMEs. Don’t start from scratch and expect the SMEs to fill all the gaps. Maximise the information you get. Your homework makes all the difference.

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