Working with different subject matter experts (SMEs) – each with their own working style, personality, and expertise – can be a challenge. And that challenge can be amplified further when you need to work with multiple SMEs at the same time. How do you, as an instructional designer, know how to get the content you need from your SMEs to create effective and engaging learning experiences?
Well, to solve this challenge, Kat Negrón, owner of Black Kat Creative, and I developed a model called The 3 Cs of SME Management: Communicate, Collaborate, and Create. We designed this model to help you find the best ways to communicate with your SMEs, facilitate collaboration to make sure every SME’s voice is heard, and involve your SMEs in creating learning experiences that achieve their objectives. Most importantly, this model is designed to help you develop and maintain strong working relationships with and among SMEs.
To establish clear communication pathways for your SMEs to share their expertise, having a communication strategy is critical to making sure you know how to get information you need from your SMEs. This involves negotiating, level-setting, and creating pathways in order to develop an agreed-upon communication strategy. Consider access to different means of communication. Do your SMEs have the technology to facilitate a Skype meeting, for example? Do they prefer phone calls or web calls to share information, or do they prefer to send their feedback via email? What time zones do you need to consider when negotiating the communication strategy?
Once you’ve had a chance to negotiate the ways in which you will communicate, level-set expectations for your SMEs. How often will they provide feedback? What are you looking for in their duties as a SME? Will they be able to commit to this way of communication and scheduling? When will they be unable to do so? Consider providing your SMEs with a sample of the types of questions you may ask of them during the collaboration phase in order to best gather content. Once you’ve negotiated your means of communication and level-set expectations, create the pathways for communication. Create calendar invites to share with your SMEs to keep them on track. Consider creating a virtual meeting space to have a space for your SMEs to share their thoughts. Provide reminders to your SMEs of upcoming deadlines, meetings, etc. to make sure they are aware of their commitments.
To encourage collaborative environments for your SMEs to exchange knowledge, there are six main factors to consider: 1) every voice counts, 2) ground rules for contributions, 3) protocol for peer review, 4) privacy, 5) accessibility, and 6) version control. As the instructional designer, it is your responsibility to make sure that all SMEs know that every voice counts. Emphasizing that every voice counts is vital and providing space for this will encourage SME engagement. Their diverse perspectives, insights, and experiences bring immense value to the content writing process and this should be nourished. In addition, setting ground rules for contributions is the key to success. Consider providing instructions for your SMEs to follow when adding inputs. Designate individual SMEs to write initial drafts of specific content/lessons and create protocol for follow-on peer review.
Choose a modality of collaboration that works best for your SMEs and meets their privacy and accessibility needs. Use collaboration tools to house shared content. Some of our favorite collaboration tools are: Google Drive (which encompasses Google Docs, Sheets, Slides), Slack, OneDrive, and Microsoft Teams. Furthermore, we cannot stress version control enough. It is extremely important to make sure all SMEs are using the same collaboration tool(s), so that you can track document updates seamlessly.
A SME’s relationship with the instructional designer should never end once you have the information you need from them. Make sure they are always involved in the reviews of your content. The reviews will depend on your development process, as well as how you’ve established your communication and collaboration strategies. If you are using the ADDIE model, the reviews will be more structured with specific, scheduled points. If you are using the Agile model, they will be faster and more iterative in nature.
To involve your SMEs in the creative process throughout the development of learning experiences, make sure to keep them informed of important milestones and when touchpoints are needed (this should have been discussed when you first started communicating with them, but let them know of any updates). A SME can contribute at every stage, but usually, their feedback is content-related. Your SMEs should contribute when content has been added to the prototype, when content has been changed or updated, and after feedback has been received from other stakeholders, such as the client or testers. We highly recommend providing your SMEs a structured format to document their feedback, which will depend on the communication strategy you established. This will enable you to easily track their feedback as you develop the learning experience.
By applying The 3 Cs of SME Management model on our instructional design projects, we have observed a night-and-day difference in the level of engagement by our SMEs – they have been engaged much more fully and effectively. We have developed and maintained strong working relationships with and among our SMEs, who have been eager to support additional projects.