Tips for Working with SMEs and Researching Content

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This post provides content research tips, including maximizing SME time and getting information from SMEs and other sources.

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Introduction

Recently, someone in a forum I’m in asked the question of whether instructional designers must know the content they teach. I’ll give a consultant answer: “yes and no” (which is one step up from “it depends.”)

In my first meeting with project SMEs, I like to clarify roles and expectations. They’ve been brought on to be the subject matter experts in the topic we’re teaching. I am there to be the expert in learning and development—knowing how to structure the learning experience and teach the content they provide.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have any responsibility for learning the content. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” How can I know the best way to teach something if I don’t understand it myself?

For this reason, I think the ability to research and synthesize information from a variety of sources is one of the top skills instructional designers need. It’s not enough to simply take the content the SMEs give us and present it exactly as they say. They’re not the learning experts, after all.

If L&D were a restaurant, IDs should not be the waiters, dutifully taking orders. We should be the chefs, taking the raw ingredients from the SMEs and putting them together in a way to make them palatable and memorable for learners.

Here are some methods I use to work with SMEs and research the content.

How to Maximize SMEs' Time

In a perfect world, we’d get all the information we needed from the SMEs. Content development meetings are a great way to do this. Getting a group of SMEs together in a room for a full day (or more) allows for rich discussions and provides an opportunity to build rapport. 

Unfortunately, that kind of time is a luxury I haven’t had in a few years. I’m lucky to get an hour at a time with SMEs now. So here are ways to get the most out of their time:

  • Do your homework. Demonstrate your commitment to the project (and respect for your SMEs’ time) by becoming familiar with the content before meeting with SMEs. For example, if there’s an unfamiliar acronym on a slide, see if it’s in a SME-provided glossary. If not, look it up online. Then you can ask the SME to verify the information.
  • Be smart about email. Limit your daily email communications, as they can quickly get lost in your SMEs’ inboxes. Keep your emails as short as possible. Put requested actions and due dates in the subject line. For example: “NEO Lesson 2 for Review by 10/15.”
  • Help keep them organized. Send a list of your questions in advance of a meeting. Better yet, put them in a meeting agenda that’s sent with the meeting invitation. Send meeting notes afterward with action items highlighted. Follow up with reminders.
  • Make it easy for SMEs to work with you. Work with your SMEs’ preferred way of communicating. Some love email, and some would rather pick up the phone or meet over Zoom. Be as flexible as you can, and you’ll get more information out of the SMEs. I once received a hardcopy in the mail of a 200+ page Instructor Guide that my SME marked up by hand. While I requested (and would have greatly preferred) tracked changes in the electronic copy, I worked with what I got. The alternative would have been to ask the SME to redo his work, and that would have damaged the relationship and wasted his time.

How to Get Information from the SMEs

Here are some additional tips for getting content from SMEs.

  • Record conversations (with their permission) for later reference.
  • Ask for specific examples you can use to build scenarios. Ask questions such as:
    • Tell me about a time when an employee got this wrong.
    • What were the consequences?
    • And then what happened?
  • If you’re revising or converting an instructor-led course, ask if you can observe a class, of if they have a recording you can watch.
  • If you’re given PowerPoint slides without speaker notes, ask SMEs to walk you through what they typically say when they teach the class. Record their answers and/or take copious notes.

What to Do When SMEs Are Unavailable

I used to do a lot of work with FEMA, and my SMEs would get deployed for weeks at a time after a disaster struck. I had to keep working. While this is a very specific example, SMEs can get pulled off course development for other job duties in any project. Or you might have a SME that just isn’t very responsive.

Here are some tips for finding content on your own:

  • Always start with the source information the SMEs have given you. Read it carefully, and do your best to understand it.
  • Do internet searches to fill in the gaps.
    • Be mindful of your sources. Look for reputable information from journals, blogs, and professional organizations.
    • Learn how to use Google effectively. For example, you can limit your search to a specific site or type of site by adding the operator “site:” to your search term (e.g., workplace safety site:.gov). Use Google Scholar for academic resources.
    • Be careful not to plagiarize content. Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s free to copy and paste. I once worked with a new instructional designer whose word choices and sentence structures were so odd that I (as a former English teacher), decided to run some of her copy through a plagiarism checker. It turns out that she had copied the bulk of the content from various sites and then Frankensteined the text together by substituting some synonyms and rearranging the word order. She had no idea that what she was doing was, in fact, plagiarism.
  • Keep track of where you find your information. I can’t tell you how many times SMEs have asked, “Where did you get that?”—even if it came directly from them. I use the “Source Materials” column in my content outline for this. When I’m researching information and not sure yet if I’m going to use it in the course, I keep notes in a separate Word document that’s just for me.
  • As Christy Tucker advises, when you’re having trouble getting information from SMEs, do your best to research what you can, but don’t be afraid to write something even if it’s wrong. SMEs can’t resist correcting your mistakes. It’s easier to review wrong information than it is to put something on a blank page.

Summary

I hope these tips have been useful for you. What are your go-to methods for working with SMEs and getting the information you need for the courses you develop? Leave a comment below!

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