A chef providing a list of raw ingredients doesn’t expect you will know how to make a delectable masterpiece. Initially, you don’t know if the ingredients listed make four courses or one main dish. You don’t know if this food is to be served raw, cooked, or both. You don’t even know how many servings are being prepared. In the end, the chef needs to provide the recipe, which includes all the steps and procedures to prepare the ingredients, if they expect us to duplicate their recipe.
Much like a chef, a Subject Matter Expert (SME) can provide a lot of resources, but that doesn’t mean as instructional designers, you immediately know where to place the content from them. Initially, we, as designers, don’t know the desired order of the resources or how much of each resource is applicable to the instruction. We don’t even know if we are to combine resources on the same topic or debate them. In the end, the SME needs to provide us concise guidance and instructions along with the resources if they expect us to be able to write, design, and develop quality training.
SMEs are an interesting and necessary part of the instructional design process. They are required for their validation of the training goals and content in order to obtain an optimal and successful outcome. Successful interaction with SMEs requires a delicate balance in order to maintain a favorable flow of information and feedback. Happily, there are SMEs that are quite comfortable in the ID realm and know how to participate and do their bit to ensure a successful piece of training has been developed.
Experience has taught us that our most successful encounters have been with SMEs possessing the following attributes:
- Expert in the field.
- Committed to the project.
- Ability to identify the content that supports the topics/lessons.
- Ability to communicate to the target audience without using jargon and/or clichés.
A SME is the member of a project team who is most knowledgeable about the content being taught. Frequently, the SME is an expert contracted or assigned by an organization to consult on the training being created.
There are also times when you may have multiple SME’s on the project. Larger projects that involve software rollouts or effect multiple departments typically have more than one SME. This ensures the content is reviewed and meets each vested party’s training needs, as well as, having an expert to review the content.
What They Are Not
SMEs are NOT instructional designers; therefore, you should, as a best practice, validate all objectives prior to gathering content. This ensures that your writing is focused and organized. You should validate the objectives to be sure that you gather the appropriate content to support each objective.
Note: There are times when the content outline will be created prior to validating objectives. Refine the content outline by discussing the objectives with the SME prior to content gathering.
Roles and Responsibilities
A SME contributes the core content and original materials. Additionally, the SME must be available for future content gathering through formal or informal interviews. The SME also provides access to source materials and reference items, such as journal articles, books, websites, etc. Because the SME is an expert in the particular field, he/she provides content based on his/her experiences.
It is the responsibility of the SME to review and validate objectives, design documents, scripts, and the final deliverable (e.g., online product for web-based training, printed version of IL training) for accuracy.
In our experience, it is excellent practice to distribute an outline defining and detailing the SMEs Responsibility/Role for discussion during the kick-off meeting. This document should inform the SME regarding the:
- Role, definition, and responsibility of the SME.
- Your expectations of the SME.
- Number of days needed to gather content.
- Number of days needed to review the content.
- Number of review cycles.
- Method of SME sign off (fax, e-mail, signed and/or mailed document).
In addition, there are key questions you need to ask the SME to get the project started off in the right direction. These questions include:
- Does the SME have any periods of downtime, such as vacation or hours out of the office?
- Does the SME agree to the timeline or does the timeline need to be adjusted accordingly?
- What is the length of the training? What can be covered in this amount of time? (This will help you keep the content organized and chunked without including unnecessary topics. This will also help you to create hands-on activities that stay within the time restrictions.)
- What form of communication (phone, e-mail, and/or fax) does the SME prefer?
Following is a list of expectations that will provide a good starting point when discussing SME responsibilities. The SME is expected to:
- Meet required deadlines when performing reviews and answering questions.
- Agree to the timeline and length of reviews.
- Prepare materials.
- Influence content.
- Agree to the form of feedback and answer all questions thoroughly.
- Abide by the change order process (adding little content vs. a new topic).
SME Project Orientation Sheet
We have determined that there are staple ingredients that provide the right combination for orientating, communicating, and managing SMEs. Copy and paste this quick and easy template below to successfully start off your next project that involves a SME. (Note: Any text in brackets [ ] is for you to replace with your own project specific information.) These templates aid in facilitating the orientation of the SME to the project and their required involvement. This document should be filled out by the ID in partnership with the SME. The project manager is an optional team member to involve during this orientation.
Project Name: [Insert the project name the SME is assigned.]
Date: [Insert the meeting date that you have scheduled with the SME. This could be the kick-off meeting or another separate meeting you chose to have with the SME.]
This SME guidance sheet is to provide you with a basic comprehension of your roles, responsibilities, and expectations for the project you are assigned.
Current status of training
- [Describe the current status of training, including the stage of the training (analysis, design, development, implementation, or evaluation). This section should specify any information regarding what changes have already been made to the content (e.g., SME comments that were incorporated in a topic/lesson, or if it is a new or redesigned course).]
How existing content was determined (if any)
- [Provide the SME with information about the content outline, including how it was created (learning outcomes), the respective topics, and an overview of each topic. This section may not be necessary if the content outline is being established with the SME. If that is the case you may be able to leverage this section to explain how the ID and SME will go about developing the content outline.]
Goal of SME Review
- The goal of feedback from a SME is to provide needed and/or additional content. A SME generally reviews existing content and provides guidance to shape the learning materials.
- Provide content edits, not style edits. [Differentiate between “style” edits versus “content” edits. (Explain to the SME that their responsibility is to provide content, not formatting changes.)]
- Review content within given timeline. [Provide project timeline and any review cycle periods.]
As the SME you are expected to perform the following during the review cycle:
- Provide content for gaps. The content will need to be framed by you on how it should be presented to the learner.
- Trim content on screens with irrelevant or low-level information not important/required for the training.
- Ignore the inconsistencies in style formatting. Don’t be an editor, be a reviewer. [(Sometimes SME’s turn into editors, this is not the goal of their review and time spent in reviewing.)]
- Identify/suggest images to accompany content.
- [Specify how questions and instructions are directed towards the SME (these are your notes and questions to the SME.)]
- [Differentiate between a note to a SME and a note to a developer.]
- [Specify how the SME should provide feedback (e.g., font color or comments tool).]
The following are examples that compare a good SME comment that helps refine the content versus an incomplete SME comment.
- Example from [XX] course. [Provide an example of a good SME comment versus an incomplete SME comment.]
- [Delete our example when you have made your own.]Example from How to Make a Soufflé course:
o Good SME Comment: “We do not address the egg-beating technique. Please see the attached document, paragraphs 2-3 on page 5 describe this method. Incorporate this content prior to discussing adding the sugar and flour.”
o Incomplete SME Comment: “Perhaps we should cover the egg-beating technique.”