We all know as instructional designers that our design is only as good as the input that we receive from our content experts. In a perfect world, subject matter experts (SMEs) would always be enthusiastic and ready to jump in with both feet, but in the real world, we know that SMEs can be reluctant to engage for a variety of reasons. Maybe they weren’t consulted during the analysis, making them skeptical of the initiative. Perhaps they’ve never collaborated on a training initiative, making it unclear where they fit into the project. Regardless of the reason, our job becomes a bit more challenging when SMEs are reluctant.
This article will introduce strategies that I’ve used to successfully convert even the most skeptical SME into an engaged and invaluable learning partner.
1. Clearly articulate the SME’s value to the project and express appreciation.
This one is a game changer but can be easily overlooked by experienced designers who engage in SME calls regularly. SME time is precious, so it’s critical that they feel that the time you request is time well-invested. I always begin by level-setting on the expertise that I bring to the table with adult learners, but I emphasize that the learners’ skill and knowledge acquisition is the direct result of the content expertise that they bring to the table.
2. Present yourself as a collaborative partner.
I will usually joke about being “partners in crime for the next X number of months” who will work collaboratively to formalize their content knowledge and expertise and bring it to life. I also reiterate that I depend on their insight into the design of the content and material to ensure that it is realistic of the work environment and job responsibilities and that we will make adjustments along the way to ensure that we accomplish that goal.
3. Clearly define SME responsibilities.
I always provide examples of how I will rely on the SME’s expertise and will be using it. This always varies from project to project but I often provide SMEs with the following definitions to help them better understand what I could be relying on their expertise for:
- Content knowledge: information that will elevate learner knowledge and skill to the next level by providing them with the “need to know” rather than the “nice to know.”
- Customized examples: specific to the organization or line of business will help learners connect with the topic.
- System access and screenshots: provide system screens that illustrate step-by-step navigation instructions for fictitious scenarios.
- Scenario development: situations that will provide learners with an opportunity to practice executing their content knowledge in an environment where it’s safe to experiment and make mistakes under the guidance of an experienced coach.
- Content reviews: ensuring that content is thorough and accurately reflects the organization’s messaging, procedures, and protocols.
- Deliverable approvals: the SME validates that the feedback provided has been processed accurately and completely.
I find that the clearer they are on the expectations, the more comfortable they become with the design process. Our free Project Kick-Off Template can support you in setting expectations and defining responsibilities.
4. Focus on understanding why.
Remember that you are initially viewed as an outsider rather than an ally. That’s because there’s usually a historical or political backstory that contributes to SME hesitation and you just haven’t earned the right to hear yet as an outsider. The goal is to convert the SME’s point of view as your relationship evolves. The best way to understand the source of resistance is to dig deeper by:
- Asking questions
- Listening intently
- Expressing a willingness to learn
I find that the more questions I ask, the more forthcoming the answers become which could provide you with insight into other variables that may have not been explicitly disclosed.
5. Don’t react to emotion with emotion.
This is an important one that can set the tone for the entire SME relationship if you leave it unchecked. At the end of the day, we are all emotional beings, and these emotions can often influence our behavior. It can be difficult to project rainbows and roses when you are receiving one-word answers to your questions, but if you modify your behavior to match the enthusiasm level of your SME, your project is destined to be a difficult one for the entire duration due to a lack of meaningful and actionable content. In these situations, it’s best to stay the course and respond to one-word answers with empathy and an inquisitive attitude in which you ask questions that express genuine interest to understand their perspective such as:
- “You mentioned something earlier that I’d like to dive into deeper.”
- “Could you tell me about a time when…”
- “I’d love an example of how you’ve seen this used within the business.”
- “Given your tenure, I’m sure you’ve seen things change quite a bit. It would really help me to better understand if you could give me a historical perspective on…”
I’ve found that emotion begins to dissipate when you can get your SMEs to focus on storytelling and sharing practical experiences that bring the content to life. Our Emotional Intelligence: The One Skill You Need to Stand Out, Plus Tactics to Boost It article provides additional insights that can help you keep your emotions in check and help your SME move beyond their emotions.
6. Focus on building rapport on a personal level.
We all want to “get down to business” and accomplish the goal, but focusing only on obtaining the information that you need to build your design can leave a SME feeling unappreciated or taken for granted. I’ve found that SMEs are much more engaged and forthcoming with their opinions and expertise when you sneak in a bit of “organic” conversation into the dialogue that allows them to learn more about me personally and vice versa. If we are approaching the weekend, I’ll inquire about their weekend plans and share my own, which commonly establishes SME interests. This gives me a very strong transition to the next phone call as I can always follow up and ask them about the plans they had previously communicated. This shows the SME that I took the time to remember their plans and want to know them as a person rather than just an information source.
While I’ve experienced success utilizing these strategies, please understand that this isn’t a recipe or a formula that guarantees a specific result. There is no “one size fits all” approach to winning over a tough SME because the reason for the resistance is often as unique as the project itself. The situation could be improved by executing one strategy, a combination of strategies, or modifying a strategy to fit your personality or the SME’s. Your first step to winning over a tough SME will always be an expressed willingness to step outside your comfort zone, commit to making the effort to experiment with one or more strategies, and then learn from the outcome.