Tuesday, February 9, 2010

When Your SME Goes MIA

By Jay Lambert

At lunch today, someone was discussing problems that instructional designers frequently face while working with subject matter experts (SMEs). Don't get me wrong; there are many wonderful SMEs out there. But unfortunately there are also enough of the other variety that you see a lot of 'what to do when your SME...' type articles.

In a previous post on this blog, Pointing to the Five Moments of Learning Need, we've already talked about the SME who wants to include everything, and I mean everything, in your eLearning course. 

Today let's look at the polar opposite of that SME -- the one that gives you nothing.

You know the SME I mean. Everything looks great from the start of the project. You've had your kickoff meeting with your assigned expert. He or she seems easy to work with and leaves the meeting with a list of action items. You're feeling really good about the project. You set up a time to meet again and review the new content and the answers to your questions that the SME is gathering...

And the SME vanishes.

The meeting is postponed. When you call or e-mail, the SME either doesn't respond or says something along the lines of 'another project came up. I'll get to your questions next.' And time goes by and your project dates start to look pretty precarious.

Why does this happen?

The causes for a missing subject matter expert can be varied. Perhaps the SME:
  • Didn't get the memo
    (Management sometimes has a way of initiating a project without informing the team that it's something that actually needs to get done).
  • Never bought into the project
    (After relentlessly pursuing one SME who never responded, I finally got a confession from him that he didn't think the project was a worthwhile use of his time; talk about passive aggressive).
  • Has too many projects assigned
    (A SME we once had was working 14 projects simultaneously. 14! No wonder he was hard to find).
  • Isn't really an expert on the subject afterall and doesn't know how to get the answers
    (Occasionaly you'll be assigned a SME because he or she is available, not because they are the expert).

What can you do?

  • Verify that the SME understands and agrees with the purpose of the project.
  • Show why the project should be considered important.
  • Establish the importance of the SME role up front. Stroke that ego.
  • If the SME appears indecisive, ask if he or she thinks you should gather other people's opinions as well.

And if all else fails? Well, you can always be a pest.

Have any of your SMEs gone missing in action? How did you handle it?

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I sure can relate to this. And it seems like the best SMEs out there are wanted by everyone. While they try their best, delivering for everyone is often too much to take on.

    I've found that it can help to list SME availability as a dependency on a project's statement of work. When possible, I might even reach out to a named SME early on to get a sense of other demands that person faces, to determine whether it should be listed as a risk. It seems like making those expectations clear to everyone involved early on can help with getting folks back on track later. Especially when the connection between SME availability and potential project impacts is spelled out.


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