Thursday, December 17, 2015

10 ways to get the best from your SMEs

An SME is a Subject Matter Expert. Remember this, as they may lack expertise in other areas, such as learning, time management, design, graphics and editorial skills. Nevertheless, they play an important role in the team. So what do you say, practically, to an SME, at the start of a project?

1. What an SME is not
The SME is an expert in the subject, not the project manager, designer, editor, graphic artists or tester. It must be crystal clear what the ‘role’ entails. There’s no problem in allowing SMEs to play other roles but be clear what those other roles are and the parameters within which the SME will work in each of those roles. There tends to be a sort of skills creep here, where the SME assumes they have overall design control and skills beyond their ability and remit. Note that some SMEs have other skills but how likely is it that they have project management, interface design, writing for screen, graphic, audio, animation, video, technical, tool, copyright and interactive design skills? It pays, on both sides, to be honest and realistic on who does what and why.

2. Define practical SME output
Identify exactly what you require in terms of tools. Is it Word, Google docs, templates, authoring tool? The there’s the format or template on the page/screen? Then there's the file format, file names and versioning. Where is the content to be stored? Dropbox, sent in by email? Finally, there’s the issue of communication. Establish rules for email communications, so that it is clear how often you communicate and by what means. Why? Because things will slip. A full exchange of email addresses, Skype names, Facebook, whatever, is always in order.

3. Time management
Don’t assume that your SME will deliver on time. Identify their holidays and other time commitments. SMEs, especially those new to the task, often underestimate the time that is needed, as content for online delivery needs to be substantial and of high quality, not a set of rough course notes. If it can slip, it will. Their expertise is rarely in the domain of project or time management. In fact, this may be their greatest weakness. First, build in some contingency, then allow for several iterations. Have a B-plan.

4. Define design envelope
With freedom comes responsibility. While a SME should be encouraged to be creative and to think about engagement, good learning theory and strong pedagogy, there are real design constraints that need to be explained. There’s the practical design constraints in terms of what can be presented on the screen, technical constraints on types of media. It is vital that the SME grasps the concept of 'chunking' and the good use of media and media mix. It may be wise to provide detailed guidelines in terms of a structured outline, word counts, even templates.

5. SME may not be final editorial eye
SME output will invariably have to be edited and cut down to size. Writing is really all about rewriting, especially; a) when the SME is used to writing papers, manuals and books; b) when the SME has never been involved in teaching and learning. Most SME content needs an external eye, if not a good editor. Explain the difference between the written word and text on screen. Explain the need for cut-down, chunked content that does not overload the learner and always leave room for an external eye and editor.

6. To err is human
It is important to foster a good team atmosphere, and the right attitudes, from the start. Explain up front that things WILL go wrong and not to get too hung up on the occasional spelling mistake. I mention 'spelling' as I’ve seen grown ups become demonic on the issue. I've lost count of the times that the production process has unvovered errors in the SME provided material, even from HE, even from supposedly quality assured content. In fact it is probable. To err is human and a good collective spirit goes a long way.

7. Challenge on content and design
As the project progresses, it is important to challenge. On the whole, after 30 plus years of doing this professionally, there is overwhelming evidence to show that SMEs tend to shove too much stuff into online learning experiences. It is the job of the project manager, designer, and others in the team, to challenge that tendency, not only in terms of quantity but also on the grounds of relevant skills and learning theory. They know what they know, you know what you know – the two should not be confused.

8. Challenge on delivery 
Another form of challenge is on delivery. It’s all very well being agile with SMEs but they have to deliver at the front-end of projects and need to know that others depend on their prompt and promised delivery. Explain these dependencies in detail, and this is important – also explain the fiscal and time consequences of non-delivery. In complex tech projects, there's often a scheduled graphic artist, audio recoding booked, whole video production team readt to roll and coders at the ready. The consequences of late delivery can be expensive, even catastrophic.

8. Copyright
It is vital that materials supplied are copyright cleared and that the team and SME understand the role of copyright with text, images, video and so on. SME content often contains material, especially images, that is not safe to publish online. On the other hand there is plenty of good copyright free stuff that is publishable
10. Workshop to work
I highly recommend a workshop that covers all of the above and more, to prepare and inform SMEs about what is expected and the rules of the game. I’ve given these workshops and they work well. For me, they have to be practical sessions where each of the following are covered:

10 ways to make badass INTROs in online learning 
10 bloody good reasons for using much-maligned TEXT in online learning 
10 text layout FAILS in online learning
10 essential online learning WRITING TIPS in online learning 
10 stupid mistakes in design of MULTIPLE CHOICE questions
10 essential points on use of (recall not recognition) OPEN RESPONSE questions
10 rules on how to create great GRAPHICS in online learning 
10 sound pieces of advice on use of AUDIO in online learning 
10 ways based on research to use VIDEO in online learning
10 ideas on use of much maligned TALKING HEAD videos in online learning

The whole SME thing is fraught with potential problems. As for the debate around SMEs creating content on their own, I’ve been in this business for a long time and I’ve seen no end of online learning experiences result in a huge, soggy or fragmented mess through lack of understanding on how people learn, poor interface design, poor media mix, huge dollops of unedited text and a lack of design and editorial skills. You need a team.

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