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Mastering the Art of SME Management


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As you know, building strong subject matter expert (SME) relationships during the training development process doesn’t just happen like magic. It requires impeccable communication, cooperation, careful planning, flexibility and stamina—just to name a few skills. As a representative of the training team, you are responsible for exhibiting these skills and for helping other members of the team develop them too. By working closely with the experts, you are able to obtain the information you need and put it all together in a way that learners can understand and remember.

Published in: Business, Education

Mastering the Art of SME Management

  1. 1. M A S T E R I N G T H E A RT O F S M E M A N A G E M E N T
  2. 2. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT ~ Share This! ~ Post this to your blog, Twitter™, LinkedIn® or Delicious™ accounts or email this to someone who might enjoy it. Share Remix Attribute Share Alike 11639 E. Wethersfield Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85259 USA Toll-free: 877-614-84402Page © 2010 by Michaels & Associates Docntrain, Ltd. dba Michaels & Associates Copyright holder is licensing this under the Creative Commons License, Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. For more information, check out
  3. 3. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTM A N A G I N G Y O U R E X P E RT S W I T H S K I L L A N D F I N E S S EAs you know, building strong subject matter expert (SME) relationships during the training development process doesn‟t just happen like magic. Itrequires impeccable communication, cooperation, careful planning, flexibility and stamina—just to name a few skills. As a representative of thetraining team, you are responsible for exhibiting these skills and for helping other members of the team develop them too.You are also responsible for bridging the gap between the experts (the SMEs) and the novices (the learners). Think of yourself as the learners‟advocate: your job is to determine the information they need to be successful. Then you need to find that information and put it all together in a waythat they can understand and remember. The primary way to do this is by working closely with the experts. Effective Expertise Training SMES YOU LE AR NE RS 3 Page
  4. 4. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT Your Goals When developing training, you should always have well defined goals. But what are your goals when working with SMEs? One of your primary objectives is to build an alliance with your SMEs and the teams they represent in your organization. This alliance is not a one-way street where the SMEs feed you everything you need. You can help them, too, by respecting them, appreciating their efforts and by collaborating with them every step of the way. This alliance can save you time, effort and a lot of headaches as you work on future projects. Success is the ultimate goal of both your training efforts and your SME relationships, but who should experience this success?  The learners experience success if they can apply their new knowledge effectively on the job.  The SMEs experience success if they achieve their personal and professional goals for the project. These goals may include recognition by peers or superiors, reduced workload or improved efficiency. It‟s your job to discover each SME‟s goals and work toward meeting them.  The company experiences success if their business objectives are met through the training and if their employees work efficiently and effectively together toward meeting those objectives.  And, of course, you experience personal and professional success when everyone else meets their goals with your help and you create a premium training product!4Page
  5. 5. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTPreparing for SuccessThe first step in managing your SMEs is to prepare, prepare, prepare! Very early in your training project, perform the following tasks to make sure youare organized and everyone is headed in the right direction.Identify your SMEs. Finding the right person or team to help you develop the training is crucial, so it‟s important to know what you‟re looking for.Make a list of what you need in terms of expertise (knowledge), experience (know-how) and influence (power in the organization). Include the tasksyou will need the SMEs to perform, approximately when they will need to perform them and their time commitment. Also note risks associated with nothaving the right SMEs on your project (such as poor quality training, missed deadlines and extra costs for rework). Then share this information with thebusiness sponsor or other key stakeholders in your project so they can help you identify the best contacts. Before you meet your SMEs, try to find outabout their personality and background, to help you make a good first impression. Keep in mind that you may require more than one SME because you may need people who can offer technical expertise, a solid perspective from the learners‟ point of view, business acumen and influence within the organization. However, try to identify a primary point person who will act as the single voice for the group of SMEs, and get that person‟s agreement to accept the responsibility. This will help you consolidate information and feedback throughout the development process.Show respect. One of the best ways to start building your SME alliance is to show respect for the training subject. Before interacting with your SMEs,take time to get to know the topic by doing some homework: read any existing documentation you can get your hands on, research current trends andunderstand the business objectives of your training project. Make a list of questions as you perform this research. This preparation will also help youbuild a respect for the SME‟s knowledge, which will show during your meetings and relieve some early concerns that the SMEs may have. 5 Page
  6. 6. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT Develop a project plan. Take time to build a detailed strategy for achieving success. As with any typical project plan, include the development steps, key deliverables, dates and resources. Also, be sure to define the approximate number of required meetings and the SME‟s time commitment between those meetings. Hold a kickoff meeting. To get your SMEs on board and get their initial buy-in, hold a project kickoff meeting with all the stakeholders in your project. During the meeting, have everyone introduce themselves, and clearly identify the SMEs for the project. Using the project plan, define the project scope and gain agreement on dates—preferably in writing! Explain where everyone fits into the development process so you can emphasize the need for shared responsibility, and thank them in advance for their cooperation. Ensure that your SMEs understand what you need, when you need it and why you need it. Also stress how you will be helping the SMEs and what they can expect from you. The kickoff meeting is a great format for encouraging collaboration and open communication—two ingredients for a successful alliance. Educate your SMEs. Understandably, SMEs may face some anxiety and frustration regarding their new roles and responsibilities in your training project. After all, it‟s just extra work on top of their already full plates. To relieve some of this stress, take time to meet with the SMEs individually to educate them about the instructional design process, adult learning basics and your development processes. Let them know who they will be working with to design and develop the training, so they are prepared for requests from instructional designers, media designers and other members of your team. Clearly define the value you will add to the project and what you can do for them. This is a great time to discover their personal and professional aspirations so you can help them achieve their own success. During these initial meetings, also explain some of the development tools so the SMEs can see how the tools will benefit the project and make their lives easier.6Page
  7. 7. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTMaking Meetings WorkAfter you establish initial expectations and rapport with your SMEs, you‟ll schedule several meetings with themduring the design and development stages of the project. To make these meetings as effective as possible, trythe following tips.Stick to a promised time. When you contact the SME for a meeting, be sure to communicate the estimatedamount of time you will need. Then, stick to that estimate. Obviously, it takes some preparation and planning togive an accurate estimate, so put together an outline, list of questions and goals for the meeting and share it withthe SME beforehand. If you haven‟t covered all items on the outline by the time limit, take the last five minutes toschedule your next meeting. Remember that the SME‟s time is valuable, and you should always respect the time,make the most of it and thank the SME for making room in their schedule.Set the stage. Before you start asking questions, take the opportunity to improve your credibility by clarifyingyour intention: to capture and summarize the SME‟s knowledge and then turn it into something that will benefitthe learners. Realize that the SME may have reservations about sharing this information, so try to alleviate theseconcerns with a professional, caring, supportive attitude and approach.Do your homework. Before your meetings, request documentation and other information so you have ampletime to prepare. Develop as much as you can with what you are given, and make a list of intelligent questions toask. Then send the list of questions to the SME before the meeting. This will help the SME know what to expectand will ensure that you make the most of the time you have.Ask for clarification. When the SME uses terminology and jargon that you don‟t understand, be sure to ask formore information. Never be afraid to profess your lack of knowledge on the topic. After all, if you don‟t understandit the first time you hear it, how likely is it that the learners will? 7 Page
  8. 8. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT Ask the right questions. To receive the most appropriate information possible from the SME, ask questions about the learners‟ challenges, problems and motivations. For example:The types of questions you ask SMEsshould depend on the situation.  What factors make this a difficult task to perform?  What is the best/worst thing that can happen to the learners when performing the  Use closed-ended questions to get process? the SME comfortable, verify your  What decisions do learners have to make during this process? understanding, gain acceptance of  What do learners need to know about this topic to be successful on the job? an idea and drill down to more specific information.  What else is impacted by a person‟s actions with this process? Where does the work flow from here? What are the critical factors to be aware of in transitioning to the next  Use open-ended questions to get the process? SME talking, get high-level  What are the learners motivations? Why should they care? information and expand on topics. Listen. When you ask questions, be prepared to listen. Don‟t hurry through the questions; instead, use  To get detailed information, ask active listening techniques to ensure that you understand the SME‟s statements. For example, paraphrase questions such as “Can you tell me what you heard, ask clarifying questions, summarize what you heard the SME say and reflect on the more about…?” and “Could you give implications of the information. me an example of what you mean?” Pause. You want to make the most of your time, but it‟s important to pause during the conversation. These  To move away from details and focus pauses serve several purposes: they help the SME slow down and consider what to say next, and they on the big picture, ask questions allow you time to take notes and collect your thoughts. such as “How do I apply this to the learning objective?” and “What does this look like from a bird’s eye view?”8Page
  9. 9. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTBe aware of body language. What you hear from the SME is only part of the message he or she is communicating. Notice eye movements, changesin expressions, arm positioning and other nonverbal cues to help determine any clarifying questions you might add. For example, if the SME crosseshis arms while explaining a concept (which may indicate disagreement), you might ask for his opinion about the concept. Also be keenly aware of themessage you are sending through your own body language. Keep your face relaxed, and express genuine interest in the SME‟s comments. Keep yourbody open: lean slightly forward and keep your arms uncrossed to show engagement.Keep your gestures to a minimum, and maintain as much eye contact with the SME aspossible. Peter Drucker, a leading management consultant, said “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”Find common ground. In each meeting, work to build your alliance with the SME. To dothis, try to find a common ground such as a personal or professional interest. Ask aboutthe SME‟s other projects and commitments, and show empathy for his or her busyschedule. If you feel comfortable doing so, discuss family, children, hobbies and sports.When you find common ground, you will have a great way to help break the ice in futuremeetings and correspondence.Follow up. During the meeting, carefully track decisions reached, action items and openissues. Review these items at the end of the meeting to ensure you both understand theappropriate next steps. Then, follow up the meeting with an email, reiterating these items,and thank the SME for helping you take this valuable step forward in the project. 9 Page
  10. 10. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT Staying Strong Review Guidelines for SMEs Your alliance with the SME extends beyond the walls of your meetings. Keep these tips in mind for maintaining the relationship throughout the project. The SME review guidelines should ask SMEs to answer specific questions about Remember the golden rule. How do you expect to be treated by your peers and supervisors? That‟s the content. For example: exactly how you should treat the SME. Remember that the relationship is a two-way street, and that you should be providing as much effort and commitment as the SME.  Is everything included in the materials that should be in order to Deliver in chunks. When you develop training content, keep the content in small chunks so SMEs can understand the task? review them without taking up too much time. Asking them to take an hour—instead of a day—to review some content is much more likely to get you the timely feedback you need to keep moving forward.  Is the information organized in a meaningful or logical order? Establish review guidelines. Although you‟re very experienced in reviewing training content, don‟t expect your SMEs to have the same comfort level. To ease their angst about the process, have  Is the content what the learner guidelines or a checklist they can use to help them perform thorough reviews. Remind them that their needs to know to be successful? responsibility during review is to ensure that the content in the training material is complete, clear and correct as well as accurate and useful from a business perspective. Walk through the first deliverable with  Is the data in the examples accurate your SMEs, so they understand how to follow the review guidelines and the kind of feedback you‟re and appropriate to learners? looking for.  Are the procedures accurate? Are the instructions clear?  Is the simplest and most direct process accurately represented?10Page
  11. 11. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTLearn how to say „no‟. Yes, it‟s your job to be as flexible and accommodating as possible to your SME, but there are times when you must stand firm.During the project, be crystal clear about constraints that may affect the project. If deadlines, training effectiveness or budget are in jeopardy, voiceyour concern and say „no‟—without being overly confrontational and without apology. Of course, get your supervisor or business sponsor involved assoon as you see the potential for slippage.Choose the appropriate contact mode. Early in the relationship, ask your SMEs how they prefer to be contacted, and do your best to support theirpreference. The mode of communication should also vary based on your intent. For example, you can use emails to distribute information andquestions you need answers to. Use face-to-face meetings for longer discussions and project planning activities. Use group meetings to conductreviews with multiple SMEs and for project updates, and use phone calls for quick questions or fast checks. If you see that a mode of communicationisn‟t working, try something new.Keep SMEs updated. You will probably be very busy during the project, but there will be periods of time when you don‟t need the SME‟s support. Inthese times, send a quick email to let them know what you‟re doing and when you‟ll need their assistance. Avoid long periods of silence to ensure theSME remains engaged and ready for action when called upon for help. 11 Page
  12. 12. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT Dealing with Difficult SMEs Even with all your diligence, planning and commitment to the project, you may encounter SMEs who don‟t meet their obligations. What do you do in these circumstances? Document everything. Keep detailed records of when you asked for information, the requested deadline and the date you received information. Note how the SME‟s actions (or inactions) have affected the project schedule, budget and/or the completeness of the training materials. Although you should always try to resolve these problems yourself, your notes will help if you have to escalate an issue to the business sponsor. Consider your options. If you aren‟t getting the information you need from SMEs, look for alternate routes. You may be able to glean tidbits of knowledge from trainers, other SMEs, your business sponsor, power users, etc. Of course, you should try to validate this information from the SME, but offering this information sometimes jump-starts the SME back into action.12Page
  13. 13. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTUse diplomacy. If you need to confront a SME, do it directly and diplomatically. Have yourdocumentation ready to support your statements, and make the SME aware of the problemthat you‟re facing. Then offer to help find a solution. Although you may be frustrated at thispoint, remain calm but firm in your discussion.Be prompt. Address issues as soon as they arise instead of waiting for a crisis. Putting out asmall fire is always easier than waiting for a wildfire to consume your energy. Call a meetingand talk to the SME about your concerns. There might be a reasonable explanation for theissue—listen closely for clues and see if you can find a way to work around it. However, ifthe issue continues, escalate to the SME‟s superior or the business sponsor—with yourdocumentation in hand. 13 Page
  14. 14. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT SME Types Below are several common SME characteristics and possible solutions for handling a difficult personality. See if these sound familiar to you. ~ SME Characteristics ~ ~ SME Characteristics ~ They know it all. They want to be in charge. They don‟t see your value. They are rarely available. They are late with most of their reviews. Possible Solutions: Possible Solutions:  Show respect and appreciation for the SME’s  Be persistent about keeping them on task. Send knowledge. emails, call and drop by to see what assistance you  Listen carefully to the SME for the facts among the can provide to keep them on track. emotion. Then inquire about them, to help focus the  If they miss a meeting, contact them immediately to exchange of information. reschedule.  Keep a thick skin and remember your importance in  Thank them when they are on time with reviews and the project. Don’t take offense or be defensive about provide sufficient input. their attitude.  If they don’t respond, contact them every 1-2 days,  Give the SME responsibilities for creating some of emphasizing that the job needs to be done and the content, but let them know you will “support” reminding them of their commitment to be part of the them with the instructional integrity of the material. project.  Emphasize that you are a liaison—and an expert in  Escalate to the business sponsor when necessary. your own regard—and that your role is to support  If necessary, post your training materials without the SME in sharing his/her knowledge. review, but make it clear to all stakeholders that the material is DRAFT until the SME provides feedback.14Page
  15. 15. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTSME Types Below are several common SME characteristics and possible solutions for handling a difficult personality. See if these sound familiar to you. ~ SME Characteristics ~ ~ SME Characteristics ~ They don‟t think they‟re the right SME for the project. They don‟t see how They refuse to help. They have an “in your face” confrontation style. they can help you. Possible Solutions: Possible Solutions:  Don’t expect too much from the SME. Do as much  Acknowledge the SME’s attitude and try to discover research and preparation on your own, and double their concerns about helping. check your information with the SME.  Stress that you are not a threat to them—you want  Try to show the SME how they can help by giving to make them look good. specific examples of the information you need.  Get support from the business sponsor and other  Show the SME samples of your previous work and key stakeholders, and explore other possible SMEs explain how SMEs helped with the projects. to replace the difficult one.  Take one small (easy) chunk of content along with their input about the topic and transform it into a small learning module. This will help them see how the process works, experience some early success and build their confidence. 15 Page
  16. 16. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT SME Types Below are several common SME characteristics and possible solutions for handling a difficult personality. See if these sound familiar to you. ~ SME Characteristics ~ ~ SME Characteristics ~ They worry about the project. They constantly inquire about deadlines. They inundate you with information. They don‟t want to help you weed through for the key content. Possible Solutions: Possible Solutions:  Assure them of your intentions to deliver quality  Assure them that you want to create thorough training on or before the stated deadline. training, but without overloading the learner with too  Cultivate their confidence by sticking to the much detail. schedule.  Show them a sample of your previous work that  Build extra review cycles with smaller started out with large amounts of information that chunks of training materials you whittled down. to keep them busy.  Focus on learning objectives—have the SME help you match content to the agreed-upon objectives so you can weed out any extraneous information.  If the SME still considers some questionable content important, consider putting that information into job aids, online help, FAQs or another format.16Page
  17. 17. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTSME Types Below are several common SME characteristics and possible solutions for handling a difficult personality. See if these sound familiar to you. ~ SME Characteristics ~ ~ SME Characteristics ~ They show no interest in the project. They are reluctant to participate. They nit pick everything. They want to make lots of changes. Possible Solutions: Possible Solutions:  Ask the SME very specific questions based on facts  Be very clear about their responsibilities and your that they can answer with little effort. expectations during each step of the development  Do enough homework to know how the SME will process. benefit from good training. If you can’t determine a  Thank them for their detailed feedback, but benefit, you probably need a new SME. emphasize more realistic approaches to review.  Send the questions via email, and follow up with a  Provide them with a review guideline to help them phone call to verify receipt and confirm a deadline focus on content instead of nit picks, and coach for their response. them on its use.  Explore whether you can find other content experts to review the training materials. 17 Page
  18. 18. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENT Celebrating Success The end of a project is just as important as the beginning for building a strong relationship with your SME. It‟s a time when you can enhance your credibility, prove your dedication, get input from others, evaluate the training and plan for even more success in the future. Try these tips for solidifying the alliance with your SME. Debrief. Hold a wrap-up meeting, and invite all the stakeholders who have been involved in the project. Allow everyone to provide their input on what worked well, what didn‟t, what should happen in future projects and what shouldn‟t. Follow up. After the wrap-up meeting, be sure to follow up with your SMEs and share the information gathered during the meeting. In this critical follow-up, address any loose ends and ask for the SME‟s final approval of project completion. Say „thank you‟. It‟s simple, it‟s essential and it‟s good business. Both public and private demonstrations of gratitude help you build a strong team bond and show recognition for those who contributed to the success of your program. When the project is over, publicize its success and once again acknowledge the contributors.18Page
  19. 19. M ASTER IN G THE AR T OF SM E M ANAGE MENTMastering the art of SME management is not magic, but it is possible with planning, dedication and persistence. The end result—strongalliances with key experts in the organization—will help you achieve even more success in your future projects.Michaels & Associates can help you manage your SMEs and ensure the success of your training projects. Feel free tocontact us for ideas! Michaels & Associates—the training talent you never knew you had. toll-free: 877-614-8440 19Page