Three Types Of SMEs And How To Effectively Work With Them

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Every eLearning developer knows it is crucial to build a good rapport with the SME, as the quality of your communication reflects on the work process and thus, on the end product. Read further to find out how to recognize the different types of SMEs and achieve effective collaboration with them.

Working With SMEs: Strategies For Each Type

If you are reading this article, you must have already acknowledged the importance of the relationship with SMEs and you are probably wondering how to build one that works. Well, it all starts with knowing your SME.

As someone who majored in psychology, I am well aware that we like to put people into categories because it helps us organize our experiences with them. I used this to my advantage and, inspired by attachment theory, divided the SMEs into 3 types.

1. The Anxious Type

The anxious type of SME is someone who is afraid of technology or unable to imagine their material in an eLearning format. They don’t want their texts changed in any way, they would rather you play it safe and stick to the basics: a video lecture, some text on a slide with a nice picture, maybe a bit of audio.

If this sounds rather boring, that’s because it is. And not only for the learner, but also for you—the developer.

Here are some things you can do if you want to create an effective and exciting course alongside an anxious SME:

  • By all means avoid making this personal— it’s not. It’s about creating a quality product, and that should be your primary, mutual goal. So, do not criticize their ideas, simply challenge them.
  • Flip the perspective. Instead of telling the SME what will not work well and why, tell them that you have an idea on how to make the course even better.
  • Telling without showing hardly ever works, so take the time to make prototypes of the main types of interactions. This way you show the SME that technology is not so wild and scary and that you are competent enough to tame it. Don’t get too bold though, as you risk this working against you.
  • If you tried all of the above but to no avail, there’s one thing that almost never fails: data. Back up your suggestions with research, case studies or best practice references. This way you tell the SME that it’s simply bigger than you and cannot be helped.

2. The Avoidant Type

The avoidant SME is the toughest one to work with because, as the title suggests, they are the least willing to be actively involved in the project. You can tell by their output that this is not a priority for them. Maybe they were assigned to the project against their will, maybe they think eLearning is useless in general. Whatever the reason, it will not work for your benefit or the project’s.

How do you get out of this situation? Unfortunately, there isn’t much you can do to turn things around.

Unless the client decides to put another SME in charge, you are pretty much left with the following options:

  • Act as an “Interpreter.” Write down a few versions of what you think the main takeaways and learning goals are, and confirm these with them.
  • Check-in with the SME regularly, but don’t get into details. They will feel respected as partners, yet not actively involved since they don’t want to be anyway.

3. The Secure Type

The secure type of SME is the one who is the most involved in the project and maybe the most fun of all to work with. Keep in mind this doesn’t make working with them less challenging though.

They are able to put their thoughts on paper really well, but also have very specific and sometimes eccentric ideas about what these should look like in an eLearning format. In addition, this type of SME may not be too adept with technology but feels comfortable pushing its limits when they are not the ones dealing with it.

In a situation like this, the tables are turned and you are likely to be the one pushing back. Use the opportunity to exercise explaining and defending your arguments.

What you can do to ensure a headache-free collaboration with this type of SME is to:

  • Set clear expectations about the extent to which you can “translate” their ideas into eLearning content.
  • Draw boundaries that you both agree to and try not to cross them. This includes not letting any ad-hoc ideas spill over and mess up with deadlines.
  • Explain the difference between live Instructor-Led training and eLearning and why some things don’t work out the same way in eLearning as they do in face-to-face sessions.
  • Ask questions. Let the SME explain their reasons behind a certain suggestion. There’s a chance they haven’t really thought it through and realize it’s a bad idea only after they have said it out loud.

This is, by far, not an exhaustive list and I am sure there are many other types and subtypes of SMEs out there. But whatever SME you are working with, be patient, try to put yourself in their shoes, never get personal (because a true professional never does) and always have the ultimate goal in mind: to create the best eLearning experience you possibly can.

Disclaimer: So far I have only worked with SMEs that are also trainers and have some experience with Instructional Design, therefore the above descriptions may not apply to all cases. 

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