Subject matter experts (SMEs) are valuable to organizations, but they don’t always have the time or skills to share their knowledge effectively. What if, instead of expecting them to do it all, we learned for ourselves how to engage with them and leverage their expertise? If we want to make sure their knowledge is translated in ways that impact organizational goals, we’d be wise to look not only at their behaviors but at our own. To that end, here are some tips for working with SMEs as a learning and development (L&D) leader.
Think of Content Development as a Long-term Partnership
Too often, it’s easy to think of SMEs simply as people to extract ideas from, but it doesn’t work that way. We tend to give our best to relationships that have a solid foundation of trust. Even when deadlines are looming, it’s important to focus on the relationship first.
When you’ve established, at least to some degree, shared vision, values and goals, you’ll be better able to understand that the relationship is one of mutual support and come to agreements about how you will make decisions as the project unfolds. It’s a good idea to set regular meetings, at least at the start, so communication can aid collaboration.
Learn How and When to Ask Excellent Questions
Great partnerships take time. It’s important to be conscientious of a SME’s capacity, but if you’ve established a good relationship, you’ll be able to be honest with one another about your limitations and then plan accordingly. Above all, subject matter experts want their knowledge to be valued and appreciated, so one of the biggest mistakes you can make is not reaching out and asking them at all.
Ask questions that will help facilitate a great relationship while moving the project or goal forward. In general, it’s a good idea to keep these questions as specific and timely as possible:
- How might our partnership be helpful to you and your goals?
- What is most important to you about this topic, project or initiative?
- How would you prefer to play a part in this project? For example, would you prefer to do the work yourself, give feedback on the work of others as the project evolves, give an approval or veto, or just be included in emails and meetings so you can stay informed?
- What would you like to know more about to help you make decisions?
- Given your other current or anticipated commitments, does the proposed scope and timeline seem feasible to you? If not, do you have suggestions for how we might change it to ensure mutual success?
- What can you share with me — for example, do you have any concerns that we can address?
Use the Content to Spur Dialogue and Collaboration
As content creators, it’s our job to keep the learner in mind, which often means we’re so focused on the final product that we neglect opportunities that may arise during the process of co-creating.
Since you know you have to go through many rounds of edits before your content is ready to deliver, you can use each of these rounds as a place to ask for feedback, including from SMEs. It’s easy to underestimate how much this simple step will both improve your content and reinforce your partnerships.
Let’s say, for example, you are creating some training materials related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). You might start with an initial list of topics and, when you share them with your DEI SME, discover additional topics you hadn’t considered. By changing your original plans, you demonstrate respect for the SME and increase the likelihood that he or she will help you make your training more effective now and in the future.
Here’s another example: Let’s say you have been building content partnerships over time with people working in the financial division of your organization. When it comes time for them to make their annual presentation to all staff, they think of you. Having already developed a good understanding of how their roles connect to the larger picture of the organization, you’re able to add some visual materials to their presentation to provide helpful context for the rest of the organization.
One helpful note: It can be cumbersome for all parties to stay on top of multiple versions of materials in numerous email threads, so consider using a tool that allows different team members to add comments and edit designs together.
For the Best Outcomes, Engage Multiple Experts
No one person can know it all; plus, we’re all prone to seeing things from our particular point of view. If your goal is to connect to many different learners (and, therefore, many different points of view), it’s good practice to have a number of viewpoints represented in the planning and presenting of ideas.
Fields are becoming increasingly specialized, so if you build relationships with a lot of experts, you are more likely to be able to tap into the right expertise when you need it. Also, people like to acquire knowledge in different ways, and experts are in all kinds of roles, so the more diverse your network, the better equipped you will be.
Finally, don’t forget to recognize what you bring to the table: your own expertise. We often become frustrated when we expect others to do things the way we’d like them to, because our projects are so important to us. What a relief it can be to realize we have our own expertise to add that no one else has! This realization will also go a long way toward building a balanced, constructive long-term relationship with your subject matter experts.