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  • Kyle Brooksher

Getting the Most from Your SMEs

If you’re like most training professionals, you put the majority of time and effort into enhancing your training. But take a step back and consider the “stream” of information in training and your role in facilitating its "flow."

Using this metaphor, your goal is to ensure that the information you’re sending downstream to your learners is as high-quality, pure and easy to absorb as possible. You may use techniques like gamification, multimedia elements and micro-training. And you might do everything you can to make sure the training is interesting, topical and easy to understand.

The stream of information doesn’t start with you. At some point, you receive it from a source farther upstream and must purify and direct it strategically to your learners. This source may be research of your own, but most of the time it comes, at least in part, from people who are subject matter experts (SMEs).

But all too frequently, the information you’re receiving from upstream is murky, so it isn’t ready for learners to absorb. This lack of clarity changes your role from an information distribution plant to an information treatment facility. This means that often the information you receive from your SMEs needs a lot of treatment before it’s ready for "consumption."

So, how can you improve the quality of information you receive from your SMEs? Here are three tips we found valuable:

1. Clarify the goal of the training and communicate it often.

An expert might know too much and but not stay focused. Let’s use a fun example to highlight how this comes into play when working with SMEs. Imagine you’re training something simple, like how to make the perfect PB&J. To ensure that you’re getting only the best advice, you work with a world-renowned sandwich artist. As you build the training, you might ask questions like “What kind of jelly makes the best sandwich?” and receive answers like “If we use cranberry jelly, we could also teach them to cook a turkey and make a Thanksgiving-themed sandwich.”

If you don’t notice this deviation from your training goal, you could end up with a training program about holiday-themed sandwiches or even how to throw a holiday party. Your learners won’t receive training on the subject they’re really interested in learning: mastering the PB&J.

OK, that was a weird example, but it happens in the real world every day. Your SMEs often try to give you all the information they wish they’d known about the topic when they first started. But it’s your job as the intermediary between expertise and entry-level knowledge to keep the specific goal in mind and discard any information that doesn’t fall within the bounds of that goal. Don’t be afraid to say, “That is a really interesting point; I didn’t realize that. But I think it would be more suitable in another course.”

2. Set deadlines and stick to them. Your SMEs are probably extremely busy, and the odds are that helping you isn’t on their list of priorities. That’s why it’s important to set realistic deadlines and help your SMEs stick to them.

In the beginning, explain to your SMEs the overall timeline for the course. Look at each major point when you’ll need their input. Ask them to confirm that your expectations are reasonable, such as, “If I get you the first draft by Friday, can you have your revisions back before the end of the following week?” Give them an opportunity to weigh in on your deadlines before asking them to commit.

Then, as deadlines approach, don’t shy away from giving them reminders. Your SMEs are likely juggling different projects and deadlines, so having a reminder will help them keep your expectations in mind.

3. Let them see the final product and any feedback.

This is especially helpful for experts in their first attempts at becoming a SME. If you’re working with new SMEs, help them understand the process and its outcomes. The more opportunity you give them to see their information through your eyes, the easier it can be for them to provide more refined, higher-quality information the next time they assist you in this way.

Letting them view the final product will also help them feel good about the process. Being able to see the fruits of their labor makes the process even more worthwhile. On top of this, sharing learner feedback humanizes the purpose of the training. It shows that the work your SME put into the project is helping real people learn something important to them and their careers.

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