SMEs are from Mars, Instructional Designers are from Venus

By Tara D. Holwegner, Life Cycle Engineering

As appeared in Learning to Change and featured on e-Learning Leadership Blog’s "10 Blogs for Working With SMEs To Create Performance-Changing e-Learning".

Working on a new course or training project can be like pioneering a new frontier in the universe. The subject matter expert (SME) and instructional designer responsible for designing and developing the project may not be familiar with each other’s discipline, so it can often seem like SMEs and designers are speaking different languages, or even living on completely different planets! This article shares different techniques of bringing the SME and Instructional Designer planets back into orbit so they can move in unison toward project goals.

Course design has two major components: the technical side and the people side. While the technical side can be rigorous, we at least have well-defined processes to guide us through. The people component of course design is not as clear-cut and can be difficult to navigate, as it requires SMEs and instructional designers to work together to produce a result. SMEs know their area of expertise very well, but are not always familiar with the learning process. Likewise, instructional designers are well versed in the science of learning, but often are not familiar with the subject matter for which they are designing a course. Creating a common language between SMEs and instructional designers is possible if you have the right techniques for combating some of the issues that arise. 

Aligning the Planets - Communication Strategy

Communication between instructional designers and SMEs should be strategic. Like any relationship, effective communication can be difficult to achieve but both parties must work at it to be successful. Before beginning work with an SME, think about what you need to communicate, the language you will use, the means of communication, and how often you need to communicate. Communicating strategically will reduce the risk of messages getting swallowed by black holes. 

As learning professionals we can talk all day about Bloom’s, Kirkpatrick, Gagne’s 9 events…and what kind of a response does this elicit from our SME partners? Zoom! There goes the spaceship, right past Mars’ head. How we communicate is about making it comfortable to work together and coaching the SME to understand the objectives of a learning intervention. 

A great way to establish a common language is to think like a thesaurus. Make a list of the terms commonly used in the learning discipline and come up with some similar, more generally accepted terms. Ask your SME partner to do the same. This will help avoid misconceptions on meaning and losing valuable time bringing your partner up to speed. A key to define acronyms and abbreviations is also a good idea for both sides. Here are some ideas: 

Instead of...Try...Chart

Another way to strengthen communication between SMEs and designers is to use your EARS. Malcolm Knowles’ principles of learning define how adults learn best and how knowledge can be transferred through course design and delivery. We can apply four of Knowles’ principles when working with SMEs as we are educating them on our approach to course design. Those four principles are: experience, active, relevant, and self-direction (EARS). 

These four principles can be redefined in terms of the SME/designer relationship.

Experience: focusing on the prior experience and knowledge that you and the SME bring to the table

Active: working on ways to actively involve the SME, or ways a designer can be proactive and motivational to keep the both parties engaged in the project 

Relevant: keeping the focus on relevancy to the SME, the organization and the learner – the beneficiary of the learning solution. What is important to each stakeholder?

Self-direction: maintaining autonomy and encouraging initiative, sharing ideas, ownership and authority for making decisions about the product 

EARS can be used strategically to bring your SME up to speed on your design process while increasing his willingness to contribute to the project. Here are some examples of using these principles to gain SME support.

Experience: You have lived much of this content in the field. A case study would bring this theoretical content closer to practice. Could we start by you telling me how you handled these situations in real life?

Active: If I got started on a case study draft, could you review and make it technically accurate?

Relevant: This certainly is a broad topic to cover. Can we take another look at the learning objectives, and you can explain which “need to know” content matches up to the objective?

Self-directed: We have used case studies in the past with great success in reaching objectives. I was thinking of two potential scenario types. Which do you think would “hit home” with the learners? 

The Big Bang - Motivation

Using EARS as outlined above can motivate SMEs to be actively involved in the project. It is important to home in on what is driving your partner to be involved in the course development project. Pinpointing these motivators will provide you with some ammunition to keep the SME striving for the finish line. 

People work on projects for many different reasons. Some may be motivated by internal factors such as a sense of achievement, personal pride, or gaining additional knowledge. Others seek external motivators like financial compensation, recognition within the company or a promotion. These motivators may not always be obvious, and sometimes our SMEs may not yet understand what his or her motivation is if he or she has just been assigned to the project.  

One way to determine an SME’s motivations for working on the project is to interview him. You can take a direct approach or ask questions that may help you to better understand his drivers for success. For the SME who has not volunteered for the project, but been assigned the additional task by his boss, there may not be an overwhelming motivating factor for him. The interview will come in handy here as well. You can ask questions about other projects he has been involved in and what that success meant to him. Getting at the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) factor can help you motivate the other party to stay the course. 

In addition to interviewing the SME directly, you may want to interview his manager and others he has worked with on projects. The information you gather can be used to help develop your communication strategy and even suggest different factors that may motivate your partner that he is not yet aware of.  

There is hope for Mars and Venus after all. The communication techniques covered in this article can break down the language barriers you and your partner experience, bringing the two of you into harmonious orbit. Tapping into the other’s motivation and being conscious of what’s in it for them will help keep your partner’s eye on the prize, resulting in a smooth landing for your project. It is important to remember that the SME/designer relationship is a partnership, where both parties are working toward a common goal. Tune in next month as we explore partnership agreements between SMEs and designers. Until then…nanu, nanu!


Tara Denton is a Learning Consultant with the Life Cycle Institute. Tara has designed and delivered formal and informal learning events and training material since 2001. Her passion for adult learning principles leads her to build learning products that meet business objectives and practice facilitation techniques that ensure knowledge transfer. Tara’s learning products have been named a finalist in training product competitions; her flexibility allows her to work on a range of projects, from advising a Fortune 500 company on an internal certification program to delivering Web training seminars. You can reach Tara at [email protected]

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