Learn to love your SME

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Love heartsThey're busy, hard to pin down and, when they do eventually get round to helping you, teasing out their expertise for the elearning modules you're managing can feel like an up-hill battle, says Lars Unneberg. Want more from your subject matter expert? He advises: try a little TLC.

There's an inherent friction between the much sought after subject matter expert and the training manager in many businesses today and, as the growth in collaborative training production continues, it's a friction that more and more learning leaders need to come to terms with.

Photo of Lars Unneberg"Why should SMEs so frequently take a reluctant stance when it comes to course creation and collaboration? Why the complacence or, even worse, downright rudeness?"

For course project managers, the experience can be mind boggling. After all, their prime objective is to help lighten the burden of the company's most highly regarded professionals by turning their content into a formal learning offer for the wider business. So why should the SMEs so frequently take a reluctant stance when it comes to course creation and collaboration? Why the complacence or, even worse, downright rudeness?

For ambitious training managers keen to put collaborative tactics at the heart of a company's DNA, it's a case of understand the feelings and perspectives commonly held within the SME community and remaining sensitive to the fears, worries and, sometimes, reticence that routinely comes when a seasoned professional is asked to try something new.

As learning leaders charged with identifying and sharing the best intelligence held within our business, we need more effective strategies for getting the subject matter experts to understand why training managers and their course designers say and recommend the things they do and why they need the SMEs help to make it happen. In short, we need more education of instructors so that they understand how to respond to frustrations encountered by SMEs.

Like any highly valued resource, hitting the right buttons with SMEs means demonstrating, from the outset, that the project they're being asked to take part in is disciplined, expertly planned and clearly supports the wider objectives of the business. While common buzzwords like brainstorming, storyboarding or interactive Q and As might light up eyes in the training and development department, building appeal within the SME community is much more likely to be driven by clear learning objectives for the course and a clear understanding of how and when they need to be involved. Let the experts and professionals in your operation know you mean business from the outset by hitting them with a rigorous project management structure that ensures everyone's time is used efficiently and effectively to quickly deliver high-impact courses that focus on defined corporate objectives.

Top tips for working with SMEs

Take care to nurture a coaching process for course development that uses language your SMEs understand and demonstrates real business advantages they can identify with. If planning, authoring, quality assurance and publishing are the four essential stages to course creation, then the business experts you need to appeal to must understand what happens at each stage and learn to respect this process without question. Presenting this process to your newly identified SMEs from the outset and demonstrating when and how they will be involved will promote buy-in and pay dividends down the line.

"Let the experts and professionals in your operation know you mean business from the outset by hitting them with a rigorous project management structure that ensures everyone's time is used efficiently and effectively."

Define the SME's role in the course development process. Be concise about the deliverables they are expected to produce, use structured project management to police the entire project throughout, allocate areas of content responsibility and make sure that the SMEs know exactly where their allocated tasks start and stop.

Make sure learning objectives are crystal clear in the eyes of the experts you are working with. Asking SMEs to take on a task that does not have clear learning objectives and a clear target group signals bad planning, is likely to aggravate and may trigger ambivalence that, in turn, creates delays.

If internal systems permit, encourage the SME to work on a 'work for hire' basis, perhaps by 'buying' their time from their regular department or allocating inter-departmental cost centres. This will validate the help SMEs are being asked to contribute within a real business context, further securing buy-in from the SMEs and any departmental or line managers they normally work to.

Good courses are built on mutual respect, so be patient. The SME has high-definition knowledge to input but may well lack the technical or teaching skills that have become second nature to you. Respect the SMEs know-how and the SME is likely to respect yours.

Lars Unneberg is CEO at rapid elearning business Mohive.

Think you have the know-how you need to work effectively with SMEs? Try the interactive course at www.mohive.com/10tips and get 10 top tips for working with SMEs.

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