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Instructional Designers and SMEs: The 7 Lucky Charms for Productive Partnership

By: Tamara Tarasova, MEd, MA

Let’s face the ultimate truth – without Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), the profession of Instructional Designer would not exist. Instructional Designers’ knowledge of how the human brain functions, latest instructional techniques and tools are very important, yet they are useless without the subject matter expertise. The effective partnership between these two types of professionals is critical to the success of an instructional project. However, does this collaboration always occur seamlessly? Over the years of my previous coaching and counselling practice, I noticed that most of the communication challenges are rooted in two main causes: 1. Poor understanding of another person’s perspective and 2. Inability to “translate” the message into the “language” of another person, thus making it unheard. This article features some ideas to help Instructional Designers tune their mindset to ensure better collaboration, as well as practical tips that proved to be effective in my experience.

Show respect
Although respecting each other seems like a normal communication practice, this category needs special attention in light of collaboration between SMEs and Instructional Designers. There is a good chance that your SMEs may have been working in their area of expertise for quite some time and are very respectable professionals. They may have even successfully trained and mentored others in their subject field. That is why they not only know a lot more than Instructional Designers in their area of expertise but may have their own vision of how the instruction should be crafted. And when an Instructional Designer suggests a direction that is different from their point of view while knowing much less in the subject field, things may get emotional, and frustration may become mutual. This is the reason why respect for each other is critical to effectively resolve the collision of opinions. Acknowledging SMEs’ wealth of knowledge, doing the homework they give you, being receptive of their suggestions, asking for their practical insights from the field and for their advice – all that creates the productive space for further negotiations.

Define Areas of Responsibility
Instructional Designers are added to the process of instructional design because they know how people learn best and because they are more proficient in many technical tools required for the development and delivery of learning products. Whenever an Instructional Designer suggests an approach that is different from the one of an SME, it is important to remind where he/she is coming from and to clearly separate the instructional knowledge from the subject matter expertise. That way an SME does not feel that his/her knowledge is being questioned. Referring to foundational learning principles such as: focusing on learners vs. focusing on material, organizing information, engaging learners, using different channels of communications, etc. oftentimes makes an SME more receptible to the suggestions and helps easier reach the solution that is acceptable to both parties.

Set Up/Revisit the Learning Objectives
Setting up learning objectives is not only a fundamental ingredient of an effective instruction, but it is also a very powerful tool for a better focus on the most relevant information throughout the project implementation. Just think of this question: What is easier to organize – a small amount of stuff or a lot of it? Obviously, the more information is out there, the harder is the task to prioritize. And because SMEs know so much about their subject matter, they sometimes want their learners to “know it all.” Setting up very specific objectives and revisiting them during the process of project implementation serves the purpose of better organizing the material and helps to leave the not-so-critical information outside.

Set Up/Revisit Course Time Limits
To open this section, I would mention that the “feeling” of time is a very personal thing for each of us. And despite the high respect for time in the American culture, some people still value this category more than others. This might be one of the reasons why an Instructional Designer may find him/herself “flooded” by the number of topics that “must” be included into the course. Similar to organizing the content, keeping things within the timeframe is the task of an Instructional Designer. Setting up the course timing, at least roughly, at the beginning of the project and referring to those time limits will prevent things from becoming too big to handle or from “inflating” a particular part of a course.

Make Questions out of Statements
Asking questions is an extremely powerful tool borrowed from coaching techniques. When someone answers a question he/she truly owns the decision as opposed from accepting it from outside. That way another person will less likely doubt it. This knowledge becomes handy in many instances during negotiations but is especially useful when the argument that you are trying to make is rooted in a reason that is obvious for both parties. If there is a statement that you want to make, think of a question that may deliver the same message. For example, instead of saying: “I think this may not be very clear for someone with no experience” you may ask: “Do you think this will be clear for someone with no experience?” Or instead of saying that “something is too vague” you may ask: “How do we measure that the learner mastered this content?” This technique also helps to bring to the table additional perspectives that may enrich your final product.

Show Visual Demos
Good conceptual thinking and the ability to visualize information are some of the invaluable inputs of an Instructional Designer into the process of creating effective instruction. Some people may be naturally more talented than others in those skills and it is important for an Instructional Designer to remember that SMEs may not necessarily be strong conceptual or visual thinkers. They may resist Instructional Designers’ suggestions simply because they may have a hard time imagining that picture or that video in their heads. Another reason behind the reluctance to accept an Instructional Designer’s inputs may be the lack of background in instructional technology and its powerful abilities. Showing visual for a concept, a demo, or a sample interaction may quickly end up a discussion on a positive note.

Last but not least, it is a common wisdom that listening is critical for effective collaboration but the importance of Instructional Designer’s listening skills cannot be stressed enough. Instructional Designers should be all ears when interviewing SMEs and should remain like that throughout the whole process of course development. When a certain idea presented by an Instructional Designer does not get through, there might be a good reason for that. Being considerably less proficient in the topic, Instructional Designers may oversimplify a subject, underestimate or overestimate the weight of a certain section which results in SME’s resistance who sees a much bigger picture. Listening carefully and being able to make sense of any feedback is what it takes to go through a project successfully.

These are my reflections on the topic of collaboration with SMEs. I am deeply grateful to people who acted in those capacities throughout my career for their openness to share their knowledge and support. I would appreciate my fellow Instructional Designers to share their insights on their best practices and would be even more curious to learn SMEs’ perspective on this subject.

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