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Working With SMEs In The Age Of Urgency


Fast-Track Working With SMEs

Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) have a wealth of knowledge. Because of their observations and experiences, they have a deep practical understanding of a specific area. This tip sheet, from The Guide to Working with SMEs: Key strategies to bring expert knowledge to workplace learning, presents some best practices for working expeditiously with SMEs to create formal and informal learning opportunities.

Formal Learning

The Challenge

You need to rapidly gather information from a group of remote-based SMEs for an upcoming learning deliverable.

The Solution

Prepare a template with standard questions to conduct in-person interviews, or ask the SMEs to complete the template with specific directions.

Templates make it easy to organize the results of all your content collection using specific topics or themes. For example, “To redesign retail training for new hires, our learning design team provided key competencies needed, such as product knowledge, teamwork, and hospitality. We then asked for suggestions to improve performance in each area.”

Templates also help filter the need-to-know from nice-to-know information. Put the nice-to-know information in a separate document to create optional resources. To streamline your timelines, consider gathering a group of SMEs for an online or in-person workshop.

The Challenge

You need to rapidly analyze the needs of learners by gathering information about the target audience from a group of SMEs.

The Solution

Use design-thinking strategies, especially in the ideation phase, to analyze the audience and required outcomes. I have used ideation workshops to:

  • Gather best practices for proactive time management.
  • Identify pain points for implementing a software tool.
  • Create an empathy map for a target audience.
  • Identify the biggest opportunities or pain points.

Tools like Mural make ideation easy in a virtual environment.

Another important design-thinking strategy is prototyping. This helps save time since you receive feedback and can correct misunderstandings early in the process. Prototyping reduces uncertainty around deliverables since SMEs can see a tangible (albeit not final) product. It also ensures that everyone agrees to move forward with developing the deliverable.

To identify priorities and reach conclusions, follow the “Game Storming” practice of “sticker-dot voting.” Hand out colored sticker dots so that participants can stick them next to their top three priorities. You can then tally the votes to help derive the decision.

Gathering feedback from multiple sources is often the most time-consuming part of working with SMEs. Your best course of action: get the SMEs to review content individually, and then get everyone in the room (or virtual space) to resolve any issues and settle discrepancies.

Informal Learning

The Challenge

Novices need ongoing expertise from SMEs.

The Solution

For longer and deeper discussions, communities of practice provide real value. Communities of practice (COPs) are “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, 2002). Popular reasons for COPs include solving problems, seeking expertise, reusing assets, and requesting information.

Consider formalizing existing communities or arranging for SMEs to facilitate new communities. Communities of practice should exist on a company-sponsored portal so that knowledge can be accessed and leveraged by future novices.

The Challenge

Novices need immediate answers from SMEs.

The Solution

In this case, you need a platform for the immediate exchange of questions and answers. Many organizations use live messaging like Slack or WebEx Teams/Workgroups. This exchange of information is especially crucial after any organizational change, or product release.

The Challenge

Novices need “just-in-time” tips or inspiration from SMEs.

The Solution

Videos are a quick, inexpensive, and easy way for SMES to create ready-to-use content. You can facilitate the creation of these videos with these tasks.

For more information on working with SMEs, purchase a copy of The Guide to Working with SMEs: Key strategies to bring expert knowledge to workplace learning.

Excerpted from: Michele B. Medved, The Guide to Working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): Key strategies to bring expert knowledge to workplace learning. Independently published: 2022.

This article is part of a new initiative by eLI, where we publish extracts from books by guest authors that deal with our niche area of eLearning. If you’d like to submit your eBook extract for publication, please visit our post here page. 



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Andy Neal

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