Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Strategies for Optimal SME Engagement

By Dean Hawkinson

As we all know, subject matter experts (or as we like to call them “SMEs”) are key to what we do as instructional designers or performance consultants. We rely on them to provide insight into our project and to validate what we are writing or creating. While we would like to believe that all of our SMEs are thoroughly engaged from the beginning and are responsive to our requests 100% of the time, we all have stories of when this was just not the case. When this occurs, it is very difficult to create an end product that moves the needle on performance within the time frame provided by our clients.

I recently attended a seminar at the national ISPI conference put on by Darryl Sink of Darryl L Sink & Associates titled, Subject-Matter Experts: Don’t Just Say “Now Spill the Beans.” In this seminar, Dr. Sink provided a list of barriers to optimal SME engagement, and we worked in groups to come up with some ways to respond to these barriers. Below are these barriers and some of the strategies that we came up with.

Barrier 1 – Lack of commitment/accountability

When SMEs are not committed to the success of your project or not held accountable for what they do, the project is headed for failure. To counter this, here are some thoughts:

  • Use incentives and recognition – Incentives to take on the additional responsibility of a SME can go a long way, as well as recognition among their management and peers. Remember, SMEs generally have a “day job” and their SME responsibilities are additional. Encourage their leaders or the project champion to make sure they are properly recognized.

  • Good project management – having structure for your project with clear responsibilities outlined and project milestones can also go a long way. Make sure that SMEs agree to this project plan up front and have regular meetings to ensure they are following through on their commitments.

  • Building relationships – this may seem simple, but as in anything, build relationships with your SMEs before any project is assigned to them and make sure they understand the end result.

Barrier 2 – Getting the SME’s time

  • Management buy-in – this is critical! The SMEs’ managers or management team must agree to providing the time away from their primary job to provide what you need for your project.

  • Get personal commitment from the SME – make sure you are clear about the time requirements and the required outputs, and gain written agreement on those commitments.

  • Offer recognition – this was already mentioned in Barrier #1, but it also comes into play here. Recognition can go a long way in getting the time commitment you need.

Barrier 3 – Multiple SMEs differ on their input

  • Specify the “rules” up front for handling these conflicts – have everyone agree to an intervention strategy to deal with differences of opinion among SMEs.

  • Find commonalities – find out what the SMEs DO agree on and use it!

  • Present the case and vote – sometime the democratic way is the best way if the differences of opinion are not contrary to specific procedure.

Barrier 4 – SMEs resist sharing knowledge

  • Try to understand the SME’s motivation and what is driving them to resist sharing their knowledge.

  • Address the “What’s In It For Me” for the SME – make sure they understand the benefits of participating in the project and what they will gain as a result of participation.

  • Address the “What’s In It For Me” for the SME – make sure they understand the benefits of participating in the project and what they will gain as a result of participation.

Barrier 5 – Finding the right SMEs

  • Establish criteria for your SMEs – come up with a clear “job description” for all of your SMEs so that there are clear guidelines on what will be expected of them. Treat it as if you were hiring someone for a job when looking for a SME.

  • Evaluate prior work – look over prior work completed by the SME to determine if they would be a good fit for your project, rather than just going by word of mouth.

  • Use social networks to locate SMEs – determine how they use these tools to collaborate. It might be relevant to the project you are asking them to work on.

There you have it - five barriers to a successful SME relationship and some strategies to overcome them. For more details, visit Darryl Sink’s website. You can also read Jay Lambert’s posts “When your SME goes MIA” and “Pointing to the Five Moments of Learning Need.”

Have you had any experiences with SMEs that you would like to share or any successful strategies? Feel free to share them!

1 comment:

  1. Lots of good ideas here! I especially like the suggestions about recognizing SMEs' contributions. Since many SMEs take on a reviewing role on top of their day-to-day responsibilities, anything that highlights their contributions and shows what's in it for them seems to have a positive impact.

    Thanks for sharing your learnings from the conference!


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