It’s no secret that the relationship between publishers, instructional designers, and subject matter experts (or SMEs) is notoriously complex, and that collaboration isn’t always exactly a walk in the park.
Convoluted communication, disorganized workflows, and digital learning curves on either side of the fence can make the entire process a headache for everyone involved, and real-time collaboration might seem like some sort of utopian dream to anyone trying to manage both internal and external resources.
But while the problem-free project may not exist, that’s why having the proper processes, strategies, and tools in place is essential for every publishing team out there. Teams that are prepared to make the most out of their relationships with subject matter experts are ready to put the headaches of yesterday where they belong - in the past.
1. Identify Your Experts
Next to the business owners, the SME is the second most important person in the development process. Whether their experience was acquired through years of higher learning or through the development of self-taught skills, SMEs and the knowledge they bring with them are what really make any type of content come to life.
To find the right SME for your project, turn to resources published by industry publications, professional platforms, and online networking tools. A little bit of sleuth work will go a long way, and many industries keep track of their SMEs through awards and public recognition online. A great place to start is on LinkedIn, which publishes an annual roundup of ‘Top Voices’ (read: SMEs) across a variety of industries.
In fact, platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter will be invaluable in your search for the right SME, so don’t be afraid to take to social media and search for those with the right experience and expertise. Not only do these digitally-savvy SMEs show that they’re comfortable working online, but they also provide added value by connecting your content with their own audiences.
2. Establish Rules of Engagement Early
It’s important that you introduce your SME to your team’s processes early on in order to set expectations and provide opportunities for feedback. Provide simple yet detailed information on key milestones, communication tools and preferences. This learning period is a great opportunity to discuss your team’s collaborative approach while validating the overall group's contributions to the task or tasks at hand.
According to eLearning coach and thought leader Tim Slade, a project kickoff meeting is the perfect time to set these clear expectations, to define roles, and to begin establishing strong relationships with your SMEs. Introducing these standards early also helps to boost engagement and trust among the project team, and to mitigate potential risks down the line.
3. Make Transparency Part of Your Process
Transparency goes both ways when it comes to process and deliverables, so don’t be shy to ask your SME what their routine looks like and see if it fits with your own.
Remember, your SME may have other priorities ahead of your project, so showing that you understand and appreciate their contributions will really go a long way in making them feel like part of the team. Everyone has a schedule.
4. Keep Communication Simple
Be sure to keep communications straightforward when working with your SME. After all, they’re the experts in their particular fields - not necessarily the experts in yours. Avoid using industry-specific jargon as much as possible, and be sure to include them in conversations around feedback and decision making related to their contributions.
More important - remember to make them feel heard. Validate suggestions from your SME and encourage their ownership of the content. Although some SMEs may be more demanding than others, an engaged expert is always more valuable than a disengaged one.
When in doubt, turn to industry publications and blogs for best practices and tips for communicating with your SME. Remember that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when looking for the right questions to ask or figuring out how to manage an unmanageable expert.
5. Get (and Stay) Organized
Nobody likes to repeat themselves, and this is especially true amongst subject matter experts. Sure, repeating information comes part and parcel with the job title, but having to repeat the same information to the same people due to disorganized communication or inefficient workflows is a different scenario.
Try to be as strategic as possible when it comes to using your SME’s time, and make sure that every piece of content has a purpose. Because many SMEs work remotely from the rest of the team, providing them with the tools they need to participate in real-time collaboration will pay off ten-fold. Look for authoring tools that encourage routine collaboration and software features that organize all feedback, changes, comments, and versions in one tidy package.
6. Take Advantage of Technology
Finally, if there's one key element that ties all of the above 5 tips together, it's technology. Choosing the right technology or tool(s) can truly help you effectively begin and foster a standing relationship, remain transparent, openly communicate and keep things organized with your SMEs.
For organizations relying on internal SMEs for tasks such as employee onboarding and training, remember that you can help free up their time for more strategic Q&A sessions in their areas of expertise by recording and sharing their knowledge in video and audio forms. While some training media may have a shelf life and need to be updated from time to time, you're still providing your SMEs with the opportunity to more personally and strategically engage with team members outside of the main topics at hand - this is rewarding for both parties involved.