Building Bridges

SME Syndrome: Symptoms and Prevention Tips

Are you – or is someone you work closely with – a SME (subject matter expert)? Instructional designers often require a SME’s knowledge and input to develop training. And it can be a challenge to obtain the key content (and only the key content).

First, let’s introduce a typical SME, Simone. Simone is the director of compliance for the organization and comes to this role with 13 years’ experience. She is well-regarded in the organization and is often the go-to person when difficult compliance questions arise. Over the years, the compliance team has put into place a series of standard operating procedures, tools, and best practices that help the organization stay in compliance so they can continue selling their products. Simone was instrumental in creating these documents and approaches, and really loves her work. She loves it so much she tries to share her knowledge with any willing (or not so willing!) listener.

Are you working with a SME, and feeling the pain, wondering how such a fabulous compliance director can also be such a challenge to work with? Let’s explore the symptoms you might experience, and provide some prevention strategies.

Bleeding content: Too much material

Simone’s slides – for management presentations and for training – are filled with text and there are few images or diagrams. Her slides include a lot of details that are important to Simone. Much of this content, however, isn’t applicable to the target audience. When she meets with the instructional designer or presents to a group, she reads off the slides and adds even more details – whether or not they apply. After all, she loves her content! Everyone should want to know all she knows.

Unclear diagnosis: Missing content and next steps

Often there are disconnects. It’s not clear how Simone got from point A to point B. And sometimes it’s not clear to the listeners what they need to be able to do with the information. Are they responsible for completing the tasks? For ensuring the tasks have been completed? In what situations? How often? What is the impact of not doing it or not doing it correctly? Simone means very well, but she takes the content and connections for granted. She already knows how it all ties together and she’s been working with it for years so she assumes everyone else understands the connections, too.

Constant emergencies and “setbacks”: Lacks time to support the instructional designer

Simone is, of course, a very busy person. She didn’t plan to spend hours answering questions the instructional designer is posing to her. She doesn’t have time to review a design document, a storyboard, and an elearning course or instructor notes, slides, and handouts for a classroom course. Sometimes she misses meetings, comes poorly prepared, or even misses deadlines you agreed upon.

There are many prevention options, usually a combination of which are most effective. Here are three of my favorites.

Control the content: Stay focused on the goal and how the learner needs to perform

Typically, I start with a needs analysis looking at the business goals and performance required to achieve those goals. The learning objectives, then, are focused on supporting the required performance and I obtain stakeholder agreement on these objectives.

Having laid the groundwork, I can keep these goals and objectives front and center. When Simone asks me to add more content or explains content she already provided me, I’ll ask questions like:

  • Is this critical information needed for the learner to be able to [insert learning objective here]?
  • Or is the information “nice to have”? If so, I suggest we eliminate it so the learner isn’t overloaded with non-critical information.
  • Or is the information really helpful but not critical? Then, I might suggest we include it as an optional “tip” or in a resource list.

Another set of follow-up questions I like is: If you were the target learner, what would you need to be able to do with this information? Why is that so important? What if I don’t know/do that?

I might end up sounding like a broken record, but I’ll keep asking these same questions. Eventually Simone will catch on and start self-editing.

Create a logical, connected sequence: Simplify content and make it accessible

When I am handed an existing slideshow the SME would like to use, and I see it is filled with lots of words, one approach I use is to diagram what the words mean. For example, if I am developing training about a process, I show it in a simplified flowchart and break it down (using more flowcharting) throughout the course. This both helps anchor learners in where they are in the process and helps them see interrelationships.

I also like to use scenarios, with visual representations of the characters and what they are doing. Telling a story via the scenario helps learners feel immersed in the learning. You can do this as an alternative to blocks of classroom lecture or pages of text in an elearning course.

I always check in with Simone to confirm the diagram or scenarios convey the key points accurately.  After doing this for a bit, eventually Simone will hopefully appreciate how I’m bringing her content to life and the value I provide as an instructional designer.

Set expectations early and often

Have you ever brought your car in for service and they tell you it will take 3 hours and cost no more than $300? Then, six hours later – no car yet and they decided it will be $1500? Of course a good repair shop will set expectations with you up front and update you so there are no last-minute surprises.

Imagine Simone’s situation. She needs to know how much of her time will be needed and when so she can plan appropriately. If you underestimate or don’t offer any indication, she can’t easily ensure she’ll have the time needed. So, I like to let the SME know early on how much time is needed and when the “heavy” weeks will be. Then, as the project morphs and the timelines change, I keep her updated and check in on her ability to meet the new deadlines before setting them in stone.

Another helpful tip is to plan meetings in advance. Having a weekly or biweekly meeting on the calendar for check-ins and working time is a way to guarantee a minimum of time together. Simone will appreciate having an agenda in advance and an action item list after the meeting. If you don’t need a meeting, you can always cancel. I never hear complaints about a canceled meeting. And remain flexible so the SME stays engaged.

Finally, acknowledge your SME is very busy and may have true emergencies to tend to. When I know that might be an ongoing concern, I ask Simone to provide an alternate SME and ensure that Simone will have opportunities to review materials. This can protect her time and help keep the project moving along.

So, what’s the prognosis for SME syndrome? If you implement your prevention plan from the start – staying organized and communicating openly with the SME – you greatly increase your ability to develop a training program that meets the needs of the learner and the organization.