How to Deal When Your SMEs Give You Too Much Information

disheveled woman with her chin on her desk looking up at a huge stack of papers
What do you do when you’ve been asked to create a course and your SME gives you a mountain of documents, slides, and references as source content? In this post, I’ll share some tips—and templates—for dealing with information overload.

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Introduction

Have you ever been blessed enough to work with a Goldilocks SME? I’m talking about one who gives you just the right amount of information at just the right level to help you develop a course. They’re rare, and let me tell you, I treasure them when they come along. (I happen to be working with one right now, and she’s wonderful!)

More typically, you will either not have enough content or have information overload. SMEs are busy people, and they’re often tasked with helping develop a course on top of their regular job duties. Many times, they haven’t worked in course development before. So it’s understandable that they might not know how much information you need. I ask SMEs to err on the side of giving me too much information, because I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and have to nag them for it.

Of course, that can lead to feeling overwhelmed by the mountain of source materials I sometimes get. Let me share what I do in this situation.

Focus on the Learning Goals

First, you may have to take a step back—particularly if your SME or client is saying something along the lines of “Here, develop a course based on these materials.” Make sure you understand the goal they want to accomplish.

Channel your internal Cathy Moore. Start with the performance problem they’re trying to solve, rather than the content they just dumped on you. Find out what people need to do differently and why they’re not already doing it. You may find out that training isn’t even the answer. If employees aren’t filing reports on time because the software system keeps crashing, no amount of training is going to fix that problem.

If you find out you do indeed have a training problem, then focus on the learning objectives. Determine what information people need to know to be able to perform the objectives. Then figure out what content you need to teach that information.

Starting with the objectives, create a simple outline that you can flesh out with the SMEs. (More on that later.) The important thing is to structure the course around the learning objectives rather than starting with the source materials and trying to figure out how to make a course from them.

You can do a search in the source materials folder on your computer for key terms (and synonyms) from the objectives. That will help you see which files are most relevant to the learning needs and sort through the overwhelm from information overload.

Ask for Help

If possible, arrange a short meeting with a SME to walk you through the source materials. Look at the files on a screen together, and ask for help determining which files are most relevant to the learning objectives.

Sometimes you get a big dump of files and later find out you don’t even need half of them. If your SME has 30 minutes to meet with you at the beginning of the project to help you sort out what you’ve been given, it can save you a lot of time later.

You may get SMEs who tell you that everything is important and you need to include it all in the course. Then you’ll need to convince them that less is more to avoid creating an information dump.

Cartoon man saying "Help!" as he is trapped in a mountain of documents. The cartoon is labeled "Information Dump" and was created by Kayleen H using toondoo.com.

Get Organized

Getting organized is your first step to tackling information overload. Two documents I use to organize source materials are a client-furnished materials (CFM) list and a content outline.

Create a CFM List

When I am working with a lot of source materials, I create a CFM list to help me organize the information. (You might call this a Source Materials list or something else, particularly if you’re internal to the organization.)

Here’s a CFM list template you can customize to meet your needs. I’ve filled in some information as an example.

This list is in table format with columns for the file name, document title, description, and content notes (which may include questions for SMEs).

Table titled "List of Client-Furnished Materials." See long description.

Table with four columns and five rows:

  • Row 1: Column headers
    • Column 1: Folder \ Filename or URL
    • Column 2: Document Title
    • Column 3: Description
    • Column 4: Notes
  • Row 2:
  • Row 3:
    • Folder Name: "Contractor Materials" CD 
    • All other columns are blank
  • Row 4:
    • Folder Name: NEO \ 
    • All other columns are blank
  • Row 5:
    • Folder and File Name:01 Development and Support \ 01-Course Admin Materials \ 02-SampleAgenda.docx
    • Document Title: Agenda
    • Description: Agenda for the 2-day NEO class
    • Notes: blank

The first column lists the folder name(s) along with the file name so I know exactly where to look for the file. Here’s what the path looks like for the example document, “01-SampleAgenda.docx.”

screenshot of a folder structure with four folders: Contractor Materials, NEO, 01 Development and Support, and 01-Course Admin Materials

The CFM list gives me kind of an index to go back to when I’m looking for content about particular topics and helps me prepare for SME discussions. If I get a chance to meet with the SMEs to do a materials walkthrough (as discussed above), I take notes to populate this document during that call.

Keep Track of Sources in the Content Outline

As I get further into the design process, my design document includes a content outline table with the following columns:

  • Objectives
  • Content Notes (including assessment activities)
  • Source Material
  • Development Notes (including instructional strategies). 

Here’s an example of what that looks like when populated with course information.

Content outline table for Lesson 1: Welcome to XYZ Company. See long description.

Table with four columns and three rows:

  • Row 1: Table Headers
    • Column 1: Objectives
    • Column 2: Content Notes
    • Column 3: Source Material
    • Column 4: Development Notes
  • Row 2:
    • Objectives column is blank
    • Content Notes:
      • Welcome & Introduction
        • WIIFM?
        • Purpose/goals
        • Icebreaker
    • Source Material column is blank
    • Development Notes: Use Tina's story about her orientation experience to introduce the course
  • Row 3:
    • Objective: Compare your core values with those of XYZ Company.
    • Content Notes:
      • Core Values
        • Activity: Core values
          • List five personal core values (5 minutes(
          • Breakouts: Discuss your lists and come up with a list of core values for the group
        • Debrief
          • Share the list with the class
          • Discuss XYZ Company's core values and how they relate to each group's list
    • Source Material:
    • Development Notes:
      • Use breakout rooms
      • Tell groups to choose a recorder and reporter
      • Explain how to share their screen

The “Source Material” column is really helpful for:

  • Knowing where to find information during development
  • Letting SMEs know the intended content for each section
  • Identifying content gaps (where the column is blank)
  • Identifying resources to provide to the learner (e.g., websites, reference materials)
  • Backtracking later in the development and review process to find where information came from—this is handy when SMEs ask, “Where did you get that?”

When I start a project by creating a CFM List, I use it to help me populate the “Source Material” column in the content outline.

Summary

I hope the tips I’ve provided here help you the next time you feel overwhelmed by information overload from the SMEs. What else do you do to manage a mountain of source materials? Share your tips in the comments.

Be sure to download the templates referenced in this post, and check out my post about using course design documents.

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