In addition to training materials, the subject matter experts on your team are a primary source for an online project and any follow-up questions you have. But often they’re at their day job and can’t help you immediately if you have a major concern, such as about incomplete or inconsistent content. Such an issue might even prevent you from going any further with the project for a day or two.
But SMEs become experts by doing what they’re good at. They don’t have the luxury to sit with you until you have everything you need or to keep helping you until you understand a difficult concept. Sometimes, you can consider research into the subject matter, making yourself an “honorary” SME for a brief period. The rationale for research increases if you design for clients in different industries.
For example, last week I was a brain surgeon, yesterday an IT manager, and today an auto mechanic. Tomorrow, I expect to be a safety manager at an electronics factory.
How to be an 'honorary' SME
Wait, what? Does that mean I think I can do everything associated with all those roles? Of course not. I’m an instructional designer, but I often try to imagine myself as entering whatever industry for which I’m trying to develop training, whether it’s for a few hours or a day or two (or as long as I need to complete a storyboard). In other words, I put myself in the learner’s position.
If I can understand the content, learners will probably be able to understand it, too. When the project’s over, the pretense will quickly fade along with the knowledge I’ve gained. I’ll never become good enough to remove an aneurysm or replace a carburetor.
As a learning professional, you’re probably proficient at absorbing and keeping any content in mind—even for only a short period of time. After all, one of the instructional designer’s roles is to become the first learner of any project. If you can gain a basic background of the subject, you’ll have a better chance of understanding and learning from the course—and others will, too.
Whether or not you have all the material to develop a course, consider becoming an “honorary” SME anyway by researching some of the topics to help you understand them better and put yourself in the role of the first learner. If you don’t understand the content at all, you might need to immerse yourself in it before you can begin training others.
Tips for researching
Back in the pre-internet era (before the mid-'90s), you had to go to the library and hope to find the right information. Today, you can become an “instant expert" by conducting an online search into the best possible sources. Remember, your “instant expertise" in a subject will fade quickly if you don’t already have a solid background in it. You need to be able to hold the new content in your mind long enough to make sense of it for your learners.
If you have to fill in your knowledge gaps when working on a project for a client, here are some tips on conducting online research:
Know where to look: Using internet search engines can often seem like hunting for a particular grain of sand in the Mojave Desert. Start with a narrow search of an exact phrase (such as for “XYZ software printing options”) and choose the most reputable sources, like the manufacturer’s website or an official user’s forum. If there aren’t many results, search again with fewer words. If you’re having trouble distinguishing reputable information sources from less-than-reputable ones, consider reviewing the source material you've received from your actual SME. It's likely that it lists references from other companies or associations that can help you navigate where to go for credible information online.
Read it until it sticks: If you’re brand new to a topic, reading your research results once isn’t enough to remember it for very long (unless you have a photographic memory). Try reading it several times at different points over several days. If you work in a team, ask someone to quiz you on it.
Be ethical about content use: If you find any information that might prove worthy for the curriculum you’re building, ask your SME if it would be helpful. It might seem valuable to you, but it might be incorrect or irrelevant to them. In addition, anything you use should be sourced with the name and URL of the site. If you see a chart or graph online that would help illustrate a point, include a complete reference of the source. But you should never “borrow” a photo or other artwork without first obtaining the owner’s permission, unless the item is in the public domain or you can claim fair use under copyright law.
Expect fast memory loss: After you’ve completed the first draft of the storyboard and begun a new project, your brain cells will start to flush out almost everything you’ve just learned about the previous topic. That’s fine, because you’ll need to fill up those brain cells again for the next project...and your next role as “honorary” SME.