Working with subject experts 1 – why are SMEs such a problem?

The theory is straightforward enough. You’re the content design expert. You want to create some learning content but, in order to do this, you need to clarify the goals for this content and, as a result, what it needs to cover. You seek out someone who’s an expert who can help you with this. You meet with this expert and they provide you with all the information you need and no more. They leave you to work out how – if at all – you use all this. At key stages in the process of design, the expert casts a helpful eye over your work just to make sure you’ve got it all straight. They even throw in ideas for ways you could get some of the information across for you to use if you see fit. You get the content designed and developed on schedule and it learners find it helpful. Both you and the expert are happy to take a share of the credit.

OK, things may not always go so smoothly. Perhaps they never do. But they certainly can if you take the time to establish the right relationship with your subject matter expert (SME) and then make sure you ask the right questions. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that getting this right could make or break your project.

So, why are SMEs such a problem?

The first problem is that there is no such thing as an SME. At least, no-one has that as their job title. Generally speaking, SMEs are co-opted on to your project because they are the ones who know how things are done. They also have a day job and that will undoubtedly be their first priority.

Experts have elaborate mental schema which help them to solve problems and make decisions

An even greater problem is that SMEs are experts. Sure they are supposed to be, but this provides you with a major obstacle to overcome. In their 2007 book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath describe the ‘curse of knowledge’, the difficulty that experts have in empathising with novices and with the difficulties that novices face. They find it hard to conceive that people exist with less enthusiasm for their subject than they do, and less appetite to lap up every last morsel of information.

Over time, experts (and this includes you, because just about everybody has become expert at something, even if just playing Angry Birds) build elaborate schema in their brains that connect together the various facts, concepts, rules and principles that underlie their field of interest. They may not be aware of it, but by virtue of millions of synaptic connections, they have a fully functioning, working model to guide them in dealing with all the problems and decisions they have to deal with on a daily basis. They are rarely overloaded by new information. In fact they are always thirsty for more.

Novices, on the other hand, do not have the benefit of all this understanding built up over years of experience. When confronted with a completely new subject, they struggle to relate this to what they already know. They are not sure what’s important, what’s superfluous and what’s plain wrong. They are easily overwhelmed by new information. What they want is the absolutely essential information explained to them as quickly and simply as possible, and then a chance to put this into practice straight away. In this respect, SMEs are not always a lot of help.

Coming in part 2: Building a relationship with your SME

First published in Inside Learning Technologies, November 2011

About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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