Working effectively with subject matter experts

In this week’s blog, Claire Gibson – one of our in-house Learning Experience Designers – reveals her top tips about working with SMEs.

Written by Claire Gibson
Published 30 January 2023
Working effectively with subject matter experts

As a learning experience designer at Mind Tools, I’ve worked with subject matter experts (SMEs) around the world to develop courses, workshops, animations, and infographics. I’ve had great SME relationships, transactional SME relationships, and, on occasion, I’ve had difficult SME relationships. 

While good relationships are not a prerequisite for a good outcome (I have had brilliant project outcomes with tricky SME relationships), I do think that a good connection with your SMEs leads to greater honesty, better results, increased creativity, and an all-around more enjoyable project experience.  

What does this look like? I trawled my inbox to find real-life examples of ways you can set SMEs (and ultimately your project) up for success. You’ll also find some tips to navigate some of those difficult conversations.  

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Kick the project off: “Great to meet you” 

OK, so let’s start with the beginning of a project. Everyone on the call has just done introductions, and their eyes turn to you to get things started.  

This conversation usually needs a framework, so take the lead and walk through your process. This is the first of your micro-interactions that set the tone for the project. How do you want this project to feel? Fun and focused? Honest and organised? Professional but creative?  

It sounds cliché, but you can’t over-explain your process to new project teams. So, talk new SMEs through what to expect and share a takeaway document they can refer to. Then explain the steps again, using consistent language and highlighting where you are in the process.  

It’s easy to get stuck on autopilot here. This is your day job. But remember, it’s likely the SMEs you’re working with have never done anything like this before, so the more you welcome them into the world of learning design, the better.  

Define shared outcomes: “I’d like you to focus on the outcomes first” 

Now it’s time to start unpicking the project and identifying what the SME wants to achieve. This part can be difficult, but it is always important. It’s the first time you have co-created a document, and on top of that, it will act as the foundation for your project. No pressure. 

SMEs can arrive at this part of the project in many different states. Some are very open; some are clear on their objectives, some are unclear, some have a vision of the end product, and some don’t. 

By reinforcing that this stage is diagnostic, you’ll work together to uncover any gaps in behaviors and explore why they exist. Your SME can meet you at the beginning of the journey, and you can define the outcomes together.  

This can be frustrating for some SMEs. Imagine planning your next holiday: you’ve done your research and can already picture white sand, blue sea and palm trees. Then, when you go to book it, the airline asks: “Are you sure you even need a holiday? What about a string of long weekends for the rest of the year? How do you feel about emigrating?”  

At Mind Tools, it’s not unusual for us to play this role: positively challenging SMEs to make sure that they are clear on what they want and need. 

How to tackle this tension? Showing vulnerability can help, acknowledging that you are both the facilitator and a learner yourself. Ask SMEs to share their perspective with you, offer some fitting examples, and lean on learning science to positively challenge any assumptions about learner habits.   

“We need to include the history of lawnmowers”  

Typically, at some point in a project, your SME will ask to include the history of lawnmowers. Lawnmowers, in this instance, are a stand-in for any other subject, usually related to the SME’s area of expertise. I’d argue that this statement always comes from a place of concern. Your SME wants to be thorough. They want learners to understand the context. It’s a reasonable ask.  

But while the SME is an expert in their field, you are the expert in learning design. Sometimes your ideas, assumptions and perspectives will clash. It can feel a little uncomfortable in the moment, but you can use this friction for good.  

You might ask: “If we have a window of 30 minutes of learners’ time and attention, do they need to know about the history of lawnmowers? Or do they need to know how to turn their lawnmower on and when to mow the lawn?” 

You both want the best for the project. Once your SME understands that, it’s much easier to discuss different perspectives and bring them together under a cohesive concept.  

Great – but how do you do that? Use go-to examples to bring your ideas to life. Try working up a quick example of what you mean to demonstrate on your next call. Always refer back to your project plan and success statement to make sure the ask fulfills one of the criteria for success. 

Make it easy: “Thanks for the update!”  

I’m a founding member of the “follow-up email” club.  

It’s an easy win. You know that feeling when someone clearly summarises multiple projects' statuses without you having to ask for it? It’s great, right?  

It’s another way to set the tone of the project. Why don’t you share that gift with your SMEs? A proactive update or reminder sets your SME up for success. Everyone is clear on actions, making it easier for you to get what you need to progress.  

Overcommunicating becomes a benefit in an SME relationship. Often, being an SME on a learning project is not their priority (because they are focusing on their day job), so any way you can lighten the load is always appreciated. 

What if things go wrong? “What are our other options?”  

You open your inbox to find an email from your SME. Your heart sinks as you read that your SME is leaving, wants to pause the project, or wants to stop the project. Often you don’t have any control over this situation, which could be down to a combination of factors. 

It’s a horrible feeling, but one that everyone experiences now and again. A good way to take responsibility for your actions is to list your concerns about the project and circle any that you can directly impact.  

Take this list to a trusted colleague or manager and create a game plan. Are you the best person to continue? Can you pause?  

It’s also a good idea to take some time to reflect on this project. What can you learn from this experience? 

You have a lot of influence over the dynamics of a project. You are, in effect, a mini-team leader for the duration of your project. At every stage, you are facilitating the project and setting the tone, and you don’t need to look hard to find evidence that connected, happy teams perform better.  

Keep your SMEs in the loop, share progress and build a rapport. That way, it is much easier to course correct early and have difficult conversations if they arise.  

And if you are unsure about how your SMEs prefer to work, ask. 

About the author

Claire Gibson

Claire Gibson

Learning Experience Designer
Claire is a Learning Designer with a background in art and the charity sector.

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