Who Will Be the SME?

One consistent challenge in many of our projects is finding a subject matter expert, or “SME.” Especially when we are involved in emerging areas of work (such as new products or change initiatives) because, in these situations, there really is no one who has “done the job in the field”…there is no SME.

This can be a challenge but it is not always bad. In fact in many cases, even in established areas of performance, we find it can be better to have multiple SMEs providing input to the process. That way, everything gets vetted more effectively before getting included — you avoid the situation of “trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” As an aside, it is also not entirely bad if the individual content resources do not believe they are “experts” for the same reason.

So our search often shifts from finding individuals to be the authority(ies) to, instead, finding individuals to be the responsible content resources for specific content areas. They take responsibility for getting the information or examples or for checking diagrams or content, etc. But they may choose to do some or all of it personally or they may find a more appropriate or knowledgable person to do some or all of this task. In the design process, we create and specify an instructional process for building the desired capabilities. That drives the need for content. Then, we identify sources for finding the individual content components, which may be general topics but are often very specific items (e.g., “diagram of the XYZ product”).

At first glance this may mean a little more work to put everything together into a cohesive program when compared to just conducting SME interviews and writing down everything they say. But this process reorients the project from “we need to include…” to “where can we find ‘X’ because they need ‘X’ to do ‘Y’…” In other words the focus is on the end user’s performance instead of what the SME might enjoy talking about. The real benefit is that it forces the team to address gaps or difficult areas (instead of trying to avoid them). And it orients the program around “need to do” rather than “need to know.”

By the way, nothing against SMEs is meant here…they have a tough role because they have to explain everything to a layman (and sometimes more than once). It is often a responsibility added above and beyond their normal duties. Most of them prefer the specific content list, much of which can often be handled through emails instead of extended working meetings.

The bottom line is that effective performance interventions are almost always a collaborative undertaking. Starting with the performance and capability requirements identifies the needs objectively. Then, identifying SMEs for specific slices of content gives them a clearer picture of the commitment level. Of course, you still have to fit the project into their schedule, and of course there are still things that emerge later that will need to be incorporated. But, having a solid design makes that process much more visible and manageable.

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