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SMEs: Neither From Mars Nor From Venus

The other day I received a call from one of the SMEs I was working with. He sounded almost angry, "Someone from your team kept calling me at 3 AM in the night." I felt ridiculous. A couple of days back, I had received similar complaints from some other SMEs. Some of us had forgotten that the acronym SME does not stand for "SuperMAn or Superhuman/Supernatural Mastermind Entity" and had taken the liberty to call them at odd hours. Like you and me, SMEs belong to the Earth!

SMEs: Who are they?

Many of us have unrealistic expectations from our SMEs. We expect them to work anytime and answer anything. We also expect SMEs to be "techies". In fact, it is tough to define or demarcate SMEs. Anyone who has extensive experience of a business area and is an expert in his or her domain can be considered a SME. Therefore, a SME can be working as an operator, clerk, developer, engineer, programmer, sales person, HR personnel, or even help desk personnel. Who could have thought of that!

eLearning and SMEs

Belonging to the eLearning industry, I cannot but stress the role of SMEs in developing online trainings. SMEs have valuable insight and can provide you with case studies and real-life examples that are not typically available in books. They also help you design your learning objectives, develop the structure or outline for your course, write content or storyboards, and review the content for accuracy. They can value add to your course by providing real-life scenarios, examples, case studies, and tips and tricks of the trade. Impressive, huh?

Interacting with SMEs

How you interact or execute your business with the SMEs decides whether you break or make a relationship. It is important to build a healthy relationship with them from start. It not only pays in the long run but also helps you sustain a relationship that may come in handy in your future projects. Let me now share some best practices from my experience with working with SMEs.

First, let me share an instance where I chanced to look at the feedback that was provided by one of the SMEs. He had gone bizarre with correcting the document grammatically but I did not find any technical comment or a value addition from him in the entire storyboard. Who was as fault? I guess we did not set our expectations clearly and received copy-edit in the bargain. Sweet!

I remember another instance where we had multiple SMEs working on the same course. At times, we received conflicting reviews resulting in loops of fixes and re-reviews and causing the course to drag on. It could have helped to assign one of the SMEs as the senior SME, the "boss" or the "manager" so to say, and assigned him to go through the reviews from all other SMEs and resolve any conflicting reviews or edits before passing the storyboards to the team for fixing. Again, we did not set out expectations right.

It is important to spell out the objectives, expectations, and constraints from the very beginning. Provide clear feedback and tell them what you need them to do. It is also important to be clear about the deadlines. If you need some response or feedback from the SME, you must set a deadline by when you need it.

Speaking of deadlines, it is also important to allocate sufficient time for SME reviews and not set unreasonable deadlines. It is equally important to respect SMEs timelines. In most cases, SMEs are not full time members of the WBT team. Typically, they have another full-fledged job beyond reviewing your storyboards. Therefore, it is important to establish the total time commitment for the SME at the beginning.

You must ensure that you optimize the time and skills of your SME. One way to optimize SME time is by self-educating yourself about the subject matter. You should do some background reading and self research before you request for a call or a meeting with the SME. If you are well prepared, not only will you understand what your SME is saying but also be able to ask relevant questions. Also, when you request for a SME call or meeting, define the objective of the call. Do you need to understand some steps that are to be executed to perform a task or do you need some reference material for missing information? Perhaps you do not understand a concept or need examples to support your text?

Developing interviewing skills will also help you optimize on SMEs time. It is important to compile a list of specific questions that you need to ask. One great tip is to organize your questions by subject rather than throwing random questions at the SME. This will take care of your information need concept by concept or topic by topic depending on how you group your questions.

When preparing your questionnaire, avoid close-ended questions. For example, questions like "Do you think it is important to perform this step?" will just get you a "No" or a "Yes" for an answer. Make your questions open-ended that leave scope for discussion. In this case, you could have asked "Why do you think this step is important / or not important?" or "How do you perform this step?" or "What are the points you should keep in mind when performing this step?"

Having a list of questions in hand before you call or meet your SME will help you control the course of the meeting. Most SMEs have a habit of going off track when talking about a concept, maybe because they have tons of information that they want to share. If such a situation arises, it is best to politely bring them on track by asking relevant questions.

Make notes or record the call while the SME is answering your questions. Focus on what the SME is saying and do not divert your attention to something else. Some people tend to mentally plan their next question and in the process miss out on what the SME is saying. Be patient. Focus. After the SME is through, you will have your turn for your next question based on the response you received.

It may also happen that your SME is not able to clearly communicate or impart the knowledge he has or is not well organized in his thought process. Your expertise at asking specific questions will help you derive the required information. One good idea is to rearrange the information received in a logical or sequential order and repeat whatever you have understood in your own words. It will help identify any information gaps and confirm if you have actually grasped the subject. Any difficulty in summarizing indicates a lack of understanding on your part and means either you require more inputs or were not paying enough attention the first time around! In either case, you need to ask more questions.

If you find time is a limitation, you can request your SME for another call or meeting and fix up a mutually agreeable date and time. Alternately, you can ask the SME if you can send your queries in email after you have pondered over the information and organized it logically. You can also send your queries at a later stage by embedding and suitably highlighting your questions in your storyboard. (In many cases, storyboard review is not a delivery milestone and the SMEs get to see only the constructed course or maybe not even the course. In this case, it is definitely not a good idea to wait until the storyboard stage to satisfy your quest for information.)

Organize your thoughts and notes after the SME call while they are still fresh and jot down any questions that immediately spring to your mind. If you wait until the next call or storyboard to complete, chances are you'll lose track and miss out putting in the required information or you will need to start afresh. Not a bright idea, right!

Finally, some tips that will help you in the long run…. First, do not promise a storyboard to the SME by a specific date when you know there might be hurdles. As I stressed earlier, their time is precious and the likelihood is that they would have blocked their time for this review. If you are unable to meet your deadline, apologize politely but do not make it a practice. Nothing irritates a SME more than left to wondering whether the project is still on. Also, in case your project is delayed for some reason, maintain a regular communication with the SME and update him of the situation. Don't spring surprises by suddenly offloading an array of documents in his mailbox one fine day! Who knows the SME might be on vacation and does not even look at your email?

Another important point to keep in mind is that people like to be thanked and appreciated. Who would want to have his or hers hard work go unnoticed? Let your SME know that he is a stakeholder in the project and shares accountability for its success. Recognize their contribution both on professional and personal front. It doesn't cost anything to drop in a line to let them know that you appreciate their efforts. Appreciation also includes sharing any good feedback you received from your client for the project. Treat your SMEs like you want to be treated and empathize with them and their feelings.

While it is important to share positives, it is equally important to share any negative feedback received from the client or from the team members. It is always better to confront any issues in the beginning than to wait till the end though it needs to be done very carefully and diplomatically. If you have any issues with a SME, discuss it with the SME and try to find the reason and the solution to overcome such issues. It will help you identify your SMEs weak points and work toward a solution. Maybe the SME was handed over tons of documents at a short notice or maybe he lacks in communication skills? Maybe the SME is not comfortable with lengths of pages? If thus is the case maybe you can send him the stuff in chunks or maybe you can send pointed queries with your storyboard or request validation of text wherever you have doubt about its correctness.

Of course, there might be situations when the SME simply refuses to cooperate or there are serious personality clashes. The only option in such cases may be letting him go and look out for alternatives. Therefore, it's another good idea to have a pool of backup SMEs that you can turn to in crisis or before it is too late. Waiting until the end of the project for the situation to improve is hazardous for the project and will affect your mental health and your teams' morale.

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