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eLearning Content Development with Subject Matter Experts

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Twenty years ago, first training project that I worked on was a business controls intervention for a large oil company. It was my first project as a writer. It was also my first experience in working with a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on eLearning content development.

I introduced myself and explained that I was there to interview him. He asked me to sit down, put his elbows on his desk, sighed and said, “This whole training project is crap! All we need to do is tell them, do your job, do it right, and do it right every time”. I reacted by blurting out, “Well, Bob, that’s going to make for a very short course”. I got lucky, he had a sense of humor. He laughed and we got down to business.

I’ve learned a lot since then and I am going to share what I’ve learned about eLearning content development and working with SMEs.

5 Keys to Success in Working with SMEs on eLearning Content Development

SMEs are content experts. They know their subject and they know it well. SMEs provide the information necessary for eLearning content development and the expertise to ensure that the content is accurate. Build a good relationship with your SME and you’ll build a good course.

Here are 5 key elements to building a successful relationship in online content development with your SME:

  1. Make sure the SME knows his or her role and yours
  2. Preparedness – yours and the SME’s
  3. Clarity – what is it that you need from the SME
  4. Establish clear deadlines
  5. Make sure the SME understands the eLearning content development process from start to finish

1. Define roles

A. SME’s role

The last thing you want to hear from an SME when you meet for the first time is, “So, what do you want me to do?”. It’s happened to me and it still makes me shudder.

The SMEs should have a solid understanding of their role in the project. They are there to provide content information, answer questions, read content as it is developed and review it and finally, to review the eLearning once development is completed.

The SME’s role is expected to:

  • have sound knowledge of the topic
  • be familiar with standards in any guides provided
  • be available as much as possible
  • provide the requested content in an accurate, timely fashion

They may also:

  • collect and analyze content
  • design curriculum or course outlines
  • offer information about intended end users

B. Your role

Don’t expect your SMEs to:

  • have a highly polished writing style – that’s your job
  • choose graphics – that’s your job too, although they should provide appropriate graphics if they exist and identify any inappropriate graphics you have chosen
  • create a completed product – again, that’s your job. You use SME input to create the product and the SME validates it.

Your role is to interview the SME, collect any resources they may have, develop the eLearning content and submit it for review. You need to communicate regularly with the SME, apply pressure when deadlines loom and sometimes coach the SME through the process. It’s up to you to keep things running and running on time.

2. Prepare for the course development

The last thing an SME wants to hear from you is, “Well, where do we start?”.

You need to prepare for that first meeting by:

  • knowing the project scope
  • researching the client’s business
  • speaking with the project manager
  • reading the project proposal

Make sure your SME knows what is expected of them by talking with the project manager first. Explain to her or him what you expect of SMEs and ask that your expectations be passed along to them before your first meetings. You may even want to prepare a one-page list of what is expected to be passed on to the SMEs.

SMEs are sometimes not aware of the time commitment required in eLearning content development and in creating eLearning. It helps to create a timetable or schedule so that both you and the SME have a reference for scheduling work during the project.

Your SME also needs to be prepared for the review stage of online content development. The earlier errors are identified, the easier they are to fix. SMEs should always review each draft of the storyboard for content accuracy. They need to understand that correcting mistakes later in the project is expensive and time consuming.

3. Bring some clarity

Most SMEs have seemingly unlimited knowledge of the content and often want to share it all with you. And that may leave you with a briefcase full of blues. Avoid this burden by keeping the SME focused on:

  • what the project is about
  • what information is needed
  • deadlines for that information

Simple ways of keeping course development on track and staying on track include:

  • establishing expectations around such items as the information required, when and how it is to be delivered, turn-arounds on content reviews
  • track your progress throughout the course of the project – this will let you show the SME what has been done and what remains to be done
  • do your homework – read everything the SME has sent you and have any questions prepared before the meeting

4. Establish Clear Deadlines

If there is one thing that an SME understands, it’s deadlines. That’s not saying that they will always meet them, but they do understand them. Work with your SME to establish deadlines as the project goes on.

SMEs are busy people. They have many other responsibilities and may not be available when you need them. They may also have trouble completing tasks on time. Make sure that there is enough time to get the task done. Make sure that the SME understands the time commitment that eLearning content development requires. Things come together far more easily when everyone understands what is expected of them.

5. Make Sure the SME Understands the eLearning Development Process

Don’t assume that your SME understands how eLearning is developed. It’s up to you to explain how things will work by:

  • bringing sample learning guides (outlines) and storyboards to your first meeting – use them to demonstrate what happens in the first stages of content development
  • explaining the development process from the initial learning guide interview to final review and sign-off on a fully developed eLearning course
  • showing them samples of completed eLearning – this is especially effective if you have the final storyboard with you. It allows the SME to make the connection between what’s on paper and what’s on the screen.
  • Answering any questions or concerns they may have about the process

Conclusion

Building a successful working relationship with SMEs is just like building relationships at your workplace. You need to communicate. You need to understand each other’s roles. You need to make sure that you and your SME are ready to work and stay focused on the tasks you need to complete.

Deadlines for deliverables need to be clearly established and then everyone involved needs to give their best effort to make sure those deadlines are met. And that becomes easier when everyone understands the process and how it works.

Your relationship with your SME is not as complicated as a marriage, but it’s not simple either. You both have to work to make it work.

For more ideas on working with SMEs, check these out:

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Peter Exner

Peter is an Instructional Designer with BaseCorp Learning Systems. He has been writing and creating learning materials for just over 20 years and is still relatively sane. When he’s not working you can find him on a golf course or on a sunny deck with his trusty Martin D-28 guitar in hand.

1 Comment
  • Posted at 10:40 am, December 13, 2016

    Peter thank you so much for both, your great article and mention!

    Best regards,
    Christopher

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