As with any important stakeholder, your first job is to establish a good working relationship with your SME. A good way to start is to read up all you can about the subject in question, particularly any materials already created by the SME. You’re unlikely to remember it all, but at least you will have an overall picture of the subject in question, be aware of some of the terminology, and have an idea of the important issues. Don’t expect the SME to have spent as much time beefing up on their knowledge of learning design, although they will certainly have ideas of their own to bring to the table, however ill-informed.
Right from the start it pays to be absolutely clear what you expect from the SME and what they can expect from you. They are the expert on the subject matter. You are the expert on adult learning. Your job is to construct a solution that will meet a performance need in the organisation. You cannot do this without the benefit of their experience and wisdom. Be 100% clear that your task is not to replicate the SME’s wisdom in every member of your target audience, just to make sure these people can do their jobs. It takes years, if not decades, to build true expertise. You may only have 30 minutes.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to you getting the project ready on schedule is the time it takes to get SME approval of your designs and scripts. This work is almost always underestimated, leading to all sorts of delays and disruptions. It’s best to spell out quite clearly when you will require SME time and for how long. Show the SME a typical design document or script so they know what to expect. Explain that approvals, while perhaps not completely binding, will be regarded as permission to proceed with the next stage of the project. Changes can still be made, but only with a corresponding risk to the schedule and budget.
Don’t bore your SME with learning jargon. They will find this every bit as impenetratable and uninteresting as you (and your target population) may well find their subject expertise. But using plain English isn’t the same as acting dumb. You have a duty as a professional to make clear how it is that adults learn best. Surprisingly, this isn’t common sense. If it was, why are so many learning experiences no more than a knowledge dump. Explain how hard it is to engage the learner, to get them to focus enough on an idea to hold it in long-term memory and then be able to retrieve this learning when it really matters – doing the job. Transmitting information is the easy bit – your job of making it stick is really hard.
Back to: Part 1
Coming in part 3: Asking the right questions
First published in Inside Learning Technologies, November 2011