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How to Benefit from Working with Technical Subject Matter Experts

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Technical SMEs, pronounced ‘smees’ stands for Subject Matter Experts. Many of our projects require these valuable members on our team to help fill in the gaps while creating training or any type of documentation. Their experience and extensive knowledge on the subject can be invaluable, and then it could make things very difficult.

On a planet, far, far away….

I admit, I’ve worked with a few SMEs in the past that appeared to be on a different planet. My SME probably thought the same about me when I questioned him about electrical circuits. After all, we were talking about bonding a telecommunication network, and somehow we started talking about electrical engineering. Did we actually have the same goal – to produce some materials for training?

Travelling through space…

Working effectively with a SME requires some basic steps.

Do your homework. Anyone who is working on courseware or documentation is not expected to know everything. However, understanding some basics will make a world of difference for both you and the SME. You will have a basis from which to start asking questions, and the SME will gain some confidence in you that you are trying your best. Have your questions ready before every meeting.

Listen actively. Not only are you learning about a subject the SME is likely passionate about, they have motivations, experiences, and anecdotes. Ask them to share these moments. Use the depth of topics discussed and stories to identify the key points, and ask about them to clarify. Your learning materials probably cannot cover the SME’s wealth of knowledge, but by actively listening, you’ll get the key points. Make notes of what was discussed.

Keep communicating. Establish expectations for both you and the SME. Write a schedule. Decide upon deadlines, and find ways to track progress. A SME might be unfamiliar with the development process or eLearning output, or even what type of document you are creating, so inform the SME of what to expect for your meetings or reviews.

Stay organized. Log your content and source files. This is a very important detail as I dealt with two same-subject SMEs who sometimes had conflicting views. Track the source document location and date received of the information included in the courseware to avoid stumbling in ‘content overload’ later. Choose your own tracking method. You could add notes of a Microsoft Word document, or use Microsoft’s OneNote. It is easier to identify where the content came from if you have hundreds of pages of content.

Triangulating the coordinates….

The SME might be temperamental and throw their weight around, or easy going and agree to everything you say. Perhaps the SME is absent, and you can never reach them. You may have a SME that thinks your job is easy and try to do it for you. Not all SMEs are perfect, but they are key in developing software documentation or learning content. Leverage your SME’s value by focusing on their content. If you do not agree with feedback, discuss it. Share your thoughts and feedback.

I had a software engineer who tried to rewrite a feature paragraph for me several times. His writing used passive voice, and mixed verb tenses, and violated the organizations’ style guide. A careful explanation of the standards I was working towards was all he needed to be convinced that we were working together to get the best results.

I asked my SME to review an eLearning module. He focused not on the content, but on the swirly orange arrow at the bottom of the page reminding the user how to progress through the course. To clarify what I was looking for, we screen shared the compiled eLearning and discussed how to use it. Then he could focus on the content that I needed him to review.




Locking onto my signal

SMEs play key roles in developing software documentation or learning content. It’s important to develop a respectful working relationship with them. A successful working relationship can lead to a successful project.


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