ASTD Big Question: Working effectively with subject matter experts

Posted by Gina Rosenthal in big question | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

The topic for ASTD’s September Big Question is working with SMEs. Before I start let me explain how we do this at EMC. Those of us who develop technical training are expected to become an SME in the technology for which we develop instruction. We have to understand more than how to do ID, we also have to be very technical.

When I talk to another SME, I am either talking to the engineer who wrote the software, a Technical Consultant who helps customers figure out how to implement the software into their environments, or a Professional Services person who actually goes and installs the product at the customer site. These folks are all super busy, which is why we as developers are required to become SMEs ourselves.

What should all IDs know about working with a SME?

SMEs are usually hyper-focused on getting a project out the door. If they are an SME, they are driving projects or they are the key go-to person for a project. Respect their time.

This means doing your homework. For me, this means working with the product and breaking it over and over again until I have a solid technical question to ask them. It also means using my experience to think how something would be used in a real-world environment, and then verifying that with an SME. Ask open-ended questions of your SMEs, don’t assume you have it all figured out.

Figure out what communication medium works best with the SME. Most of the time its email for my SMEs, but the message has to be short enough that they can read it on their blackberry. If I send a long rambling email they will ignore it (and probably give me grief later). Ask if they can point you to an information source (more on this later).

What can you and can’t you expect a SME to do?

Don’t expect SMEs to drop what they are doing  to answer a question. Ask to book time with them. Don’t expect one SME to see the entire picture. Companies are a system, and there are usually lots of moving parts that aren’t visible to each individual player.

I have come to expect that the SMEs are very willing to help and share their knowledge if you build a relationship with them. From a technical end, this means proving you know what you are talking about and asking relevant questions.

Does it work to have SMEs create rapid eLearning?

It depends on what you are talking about. First of all, if it is an SME that understands ID (like me!) then yes.

If all you want is a data dump, then maybe. We sometimes do that where I work now – we call them Knowledge Transfers. Our resources are limited, so the team that develops instruction for new product releases makes a business determination of what releases will have instruction developed for them. If it is a small release (of if we don’t have a resource that can cover it from an SME/ID perspective) that team will coach the lead engineers on what information needs to be presented during the KT. Then our team sets up a Live Centra session, provides someone to help the engineers and facilitate the information dump. Usually we record these sessions as well.

If you are asking should these SMEs be responsible for creating instructional content on a regular basis my answer is no. Remember I said SMEs are busy? They really are. They are usually folks that get stuff done in an organization. Many times, they are also paid more for their expertise. Is it really wise to have an engineer writing elearning? Is that really how you want this expert to spend his or her precious time?

How does social and informal learning impact how you engage with SMEs?

EMC has an internal social media site, and the organization I support is very active on that site. I’m able to keep current on positioning of the Ionix products by keeping up with that site.

Remember I talked earlier about asking the SME for other sources of information? I’ve started asking specifically to be pointed to wikis. There is lots of information out there in little silos, and thankfully the people I work with are very happy to share those URLs with me.

This will sound weird – but I’m friends on Facebook with lots of the engineers for the main product I support. I don’t use Facebook to talk about work, but it has helped to build a social relationship with these guys. Discovering the things we have in common, and seeing their updates about families and friends has helped build a social relationship.

Seeing that the guys I work with are in Texas (I’m outside Boston), there is no way I could have formed any relationship with them without social media. And having a social connection to the SME’s makes it easier if you need to ask them something during a time crunch. They know you, and they know they can shame you on your wall if you get out of hand asking questions. 🙂

What’s your favorite instructive story of working with a SME?

One of the engineers I work with writes all of the compliance rules for the product (Ionix Network Configuration Manager). He is so interested in getting feedback from students on what they are looking to do as far as network compliance, so that he can make the rules even better. I love that!

4 Responses to ASTD Big Question: Working effectively with subject matter experts

  1. [Blocked by CFC] Virginia Yonkers says:

    I noticed you didn’t talk about being in on the development process, but I assume from your post that you are there learning as a product is developed. It is hard to go to an expert just before a product is launched (probably the busiest time of the product development process), and ask questions about the product. But if you have been informed during the creation process, you have a much better understanding of the product. I know this is how it works with my husband’s organization. By the time there is a new upgrade, he knows what the trainers are going to need in terms of his expertise. It also makes it easier to have those targeted questions.

  2. amandallen says:

    where do you find these “big questions?”

  3. gminks says:

    Amanda – on the Learning Circuits Blog:

  4. Mollybob says:

    I used to work with IT SMEs on a regular basis as part of my job too, and I found exactly what you did. Unfortunately all we had was email, so that didn’t help with the silos. I can’t emphasise enouhg how important a good relationship was with them, most of them were really good to me because I tried to get along with them and respected that they had different priorities to what I did.

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