Working with SMEs: Dr. Luke Hobson's 8-Step Framework to Building Effective Relationships, & Courses
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Instructional Design
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Working with SMEs: Dr. Luke Hobson's 8-Step Framework to Building Effective Relationships, & Courses

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Search for the term 'SME' in r/instructionaldesign. Seriously, give it a try.

The results are enough to make it feel like working with SMEs (subject matter experts) is kryptonite for instructional designers. SMEs who ruin your best ideas, SMEs who dictate course content format, SMEs who are impossible to get hold of... The challenges are real.

That's why it's worth investing in a framework that will make your work with SMEs efficient, effective, and, dare we say, fulfilling for both you and the SME.

Dr. Hobson's Framework for Collaborating and Building Relationships with SMEs

Dr. Luke Hobson is well aware of the challenges around working with SMEs. As Senior Instructional Designer & Program Manager at MIT, he regularly works with some of the world's most renowned SMEs on subject matter way outside his comfort zone. You could say Luke is an SME... on working with SMEs 🤪

How does Luke manage to create MIT-standard content when faced with all the challenges that working with SMEs entails? Answer—his 8 step framework for building great SME relationships.

If you want to go deep on this topic then we recommend signing up for Luke's 2-week cohort-based course on Collaborating and Building Relationships with SMEs. In the course, Luke teaches you how to become an equal partner in the SME-ID collaboration, to build rapport, to know when (and how!) to push back on subject matter experts, and more. Sign up using the button below:

Sign up for Dr. Luke Hobson's cohort based course and learn how to build strong SMEs relationships

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In the rest of this post, we'll give an overview of Luke's 8 steps to collaborating with SMEs.

Step 1: Learn More About Your SME

Depending on the context in which you work, you may be assigned an SME by faculty or management, or you may identify that SME yourself. Whichever way the match happens, your first task is to fully research the SME.

Luke recommends starting on LinkedIn. The social network is a goldmine of information on previous jobs and education, as well as recent updates that will tell you what's on your SMEs mind right now. As you go through their LinkedIn posts and profile page, try to summarize what's important to them, what gets them fired up, and how you can channel their enthusiasm into your learning design.

Many SMEs will publish articles, either in academic journals or, in corporate settings, on platforms like blogs or newsletters. Read as many of these published pieces as you can, says Luke. As you read, look for frequently used terminology that you can reflect back to the SME in your first conversation with them. This will help reduce SME anxiety that they're talking to someone who doesn't 'get' their subject area.

Step 2: Explain Your Role

This may be the first time your subject matter expert has worked with an instructional designer or been involved in an education project before. Even if it's not the first time, the SME may not have a good understanding of what you do, or what your goals are for the collaboration. Help them understand.

Luke likes to start by asking the SME if they've ever worked with an instructional designer before and, if so, what the experience was like. This soft opener gives SMEs the chance to be open about any anxieties or reservations they have about the process.

You can then establish roles and expectations upfront. Some IDs create introductory packets, checklists, or RACI charts that they review with each SME they work with. Whatever, you choose to share, make sure you have a frank discussion about who owns what, and what you as a learning designer need to get work done. Go right back to basics: explain that you're an expert in how people learn online, and you're going to help the SME create an effective learning experience for course-takers.

By taking time to explain your role and your investment in good collaboration, you're dispelling myths about the online learning process and learning design. You may also help the SME get over any bad experiences with online learning they had in the past.

Step 3: Understand the SME's Preferences

SMEs are busy people. They likely have a ton of projects and conflicting priorities, and have established their own personal work habits to juggle those priorities.

Luke recommends leaning into the SME's preferences, rather than trying to impose your own. Ask things like:

  • How do you like to work?
  • What tools do you use to get work done?
  • Where do you see this project going?

By getting these preferences up-front, Luke can build a collaborative workflow that works for both him and the SME, which builds trust fast.

If you customize workflows to meet the SME's needs, you'll end up meeting learners' needs better.

Step 4: Provide Examples of Courses

Many SMEs have limited familiarity with what finished courses look like. When picturing what your learning design will look like, they may rely heavily on their own e-learning experiences, whether they were positive or not. Part of building a good relationship with the SME will involve educating them on the possibilities, and benefits, of online learning.

Start by asking the SME if they want to see an example of a course you created in the past. Seeing a complete course allows the SME to ask any questions about content format upfront before you start designing. It also helps make the whole project "real", says Luke, which increases the SME's sense of ownership over the design.

Pick a course to share that's similar to the one you wish to create with the SME, and take time to explain the course's strong points for learners. Don’t get bogged down with details about Bloom’s taxonomy or ADDIE, but a quick conversation about common instructional terminology and what effective learning objectives look like will help orient the expert.

Step 5: Remove Barriers

Most SMEs aren't working with you full-time to create a course. That means that the little time you do have together is precious, and needs to be used productively.

The best way to make that happen is to remove barriers to productivity for the SME. Luke does this by providing the SME with a written project scope and timeline. This document gets into the nitty-gritty on learning objectives, target learners, what theme he plans to build out each week... By giving the SME this information in written form, Luke empowers them to answer their own questions as the course is developed.

Luke also explains the design process he follows. It doesn't matter whether you as an ID use ADDIE, agile, SAM, or something else (Luke uses backward design), take the time to explain the design process to your SME upfront.

Here you can read our post on backward design.

Step 6: Set Deadlines

As mentioned before, SMEs are busy people. You may feel tempted to reduce your contact with them and get work done on your own because they seem so busy all the time.

Resist that temptation, says Luke. Set hard deadlines. Yes, it sounds tough, but you really need to emphasize to SMEs that regular, recurring meetings will help you get the work done faster in the long run.

Supply the SME with a project timeline with deadlines mapped onto it. Then put the recurring calls on their calendar. If they push back, you need to insist. Luke has seen things go off the rails on instructional design projects where meetings aren't happening; don't let it happen to your project.

Step 7: Provide Feedback

Once you get into the actual course creation, don't be afraid to give SMEs feedback. Yes, they're amazing professors, but you're an expert in instructional design.

SMEs want to do their best, they want to provide a good learning experience. Be brave enough to help them level up by giving constructive feedback as often as possible. Everyone will thank you for it in the end.

Step 8: Know When to Push Back

Let's get real. Not all SMEs are great to work with. What do you do in that situation?

Think about it from their perspective, emphasizes Luke. Is something going on to change the way they view the project? Have they suddenly become busier at work?

Luke also relies a lot on user feedback and data to help SMEs make good decisions. If SMEs insist on doing something in a course that you don't agree with, show them relevant user data to explain why your idea might be more relevant.

Troubleshoot Common Subject Matter Expert Issues

Even when you’ve done everything possible to cultivate a good relationship with your subject matter expert, you may still run into roadblocks. Here are some common issues, along with ways how you can approach them in a constructive way.‍

Scheduling Problems

You’re desperately trying to meet a project deadline, but your SME is busy doing their actual job, and helping you is clearly not their top priority.

You can try to head this problem off at the start by being upfront about the time commitment before the SME agrees to take on the job. That may weed out particularly busy SMEs.

Once they sign on to the project, create a schedule with clear deadlines, and stick to them on your end to reinforce their importance.

Try to get the SME invested in the project’s success so they are motivated to make time for the work. Discuss the importance of the work you’re creating and the potential impact of their contributions. Ask for their opinion, and thank them for their help.

Remember, your SME is probably busier than you, so try to be as flexible as possible. Be persistent, and make yourself available as their schedule dictates (within reason).‍

Combatting an "Expert" Mindset

Some SMEs have been experts for so long that they have trouble sharing their vast stores of knowledge in a way that you (and your target learners) can understand. There are a few techniques you can use to bring them down to your level:

  • Explain it like I’m eight. Ask them to explain the subject the way they would to a small child. Then, use this simplified explanation, and build up to reach your desired level of expertise.
  • Ask for real-world examples. If your SME tends to get bogged down in theories, try to ground them by asking for specific examples and scenarios.
  • Provoke a reaction. If you still can’t get your SME to come down to your level, you can give this tactic a try. Explain a concept back to them badly, and let them correct you. Often, this change in approach can help them focus and explain concepts more clearly.‍

Information Overload

Your SME is passionate about their subject — maybe too passionate. Often, they want to include information that, while it may be important to them or the subject, doesn't support the goals of that particular training.

When an SME gets too attached to superfluous material, try to call back to the goals of your project. Remind them of the specific learning objectives you set out in the project scope document (step 5 in Luke's framework).

Ask the SME questions like:

  • How does this tie to our learning outcome?
  • What happens if the student doesn’t know this piece of information?
  • What do learners need to be able to do when this course is over? Can they do that without knowing this?

Recognize that editing-out information they are passionate about may be emotionally difficult. As CJ Escribano says in her blog post on working with SMEs, “Your challenge is to honor their passion without compromising the instructional effectiveness of your program.”

One way to do that is to create a file for interesting information that doesn’t actually contribute to your learning objectives. Let them get it out of their system with the promise to fit in anything that seems relevant, and let the rest go.‍

Great SME Relationships Don't End at Course Launch

By the end of the instructional design process, you may have been working with the SME for weeks, or even months. Don't let that relationship go to waste.

Sign up to Dr. Luke's full course to become an expert in building strong SME relationships.

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