6 Tactics to Successfully Work with Subject Matter Experts

When it comes to developing a learning program that is not only compelling and engaging but is highly accurate and relevant, successfully working with subject matter experts (SME) can be tricky. The tactics you use to build and preserve your relationship with the SME can mean the difference between elegant content simplicity or your learning initiative crashing into a ball of flames.

We all accept that design simplicity is critical to the exchange of knowledge. As workplace educators, our job is to help people succeed in the workplace. Our SMEs have a different role. Their role is to have complete knowledge of a topic to ensure the wheels go ’round and ’round. Their knowledge helps the organization perform at its level best.

Now enter the big question. What tactics can you use to build a relationship with your SME that is based on trust, respect, and cooperation?

Understanding Barriers

Before jumping into the 6 tactics, try to imagine how your subject matter experts think about the world around them and their role within the organization. Take a moment to stop and remember their perspective will be inherently different from your own. Your goals are different, your perspective of the business needs will be different and your approach to solving those problems will be different.

Here are three barriers you must be prepared to address before you jump into a relationship with your SME.

  1. They don’t work for you. Your SME has a day job, and it’s not the same as your day job. Therefore getting them to commit time and effort to your project may be a challenge. They will not see your project as a priority, and they may even be territorial about their space. How will you build this potential barrier into your project timeline.
  2. They have a head full of knowledge. As a SME it’s critical they have deep and broad knowledge of their particular topic. The balancing act becomes, how do we respect the knowledge they have while balancing the “need to know” of the learner. How will you convince them that not all the knowledge they have will be relevant?
  3. Change may be difficult. What they know is what they know. This knowledge is built on years, or even decades of experience. Getting your SME to think differently about a topic they are so connected with will be a challenge. This may be especially true if they have built training materials around their topic. They spent valuable time putting together what they think is best for learners, so expect a certain level of resistence.

6 tactics to build and preserve your SME relationship

Keeping these barriers in mind, here are 6 tactics you can use to help you build a relationship with your subject matter experts.

Tactic #1: Active Listening

Developing your active listening skills will help you in all areas of your life, not just working effectively with subject matters experts. Your SME may appear to be difficult in your first meeting, this is due to their passion and connection to the topic.

If this is your first time working together, try to break the ice and discover common ground. While you both may have different goals – you both want the topic to succeed. Share success stories or stories of difficult projects. Reflect on what the SME is sharing, and turn to empathic questioning to understand any root cause issues. Maybe they have had bad experiences with previous developers, and now you have to mend broken relationships.

Pay attention to what is not being said as well as the content of the words. Such emotional attunement will level up your ability to understand your SME’s point of view.

Tactic #2: Avoid Assumptions

As with any working relationship, avoiding assumptions with your subject matter experts will get you closer to your goal.

Our gut reactions have a tendency to believe SME’s will share our overall perspective. We assume the SME will agree because you both have the best interests of the organization in mind.

However, studies on a cognitive bias called the “false consensus effect” indicate we significantly overestimate the extent to which others agree with our opinions. As a result, we are actually closer to conflict when we assume agreement with the SME and it contributes to the “us versus them” mentality.

Remember one of the barriers is that they don’t work for you. They may be very protective of their space and knowledge. Assume the best, and prepare for the worst.

The key is to ask solid follow-up questions: “I think I heard you say…” or “Help me understand why this is important?” Once your SME accepts that you respect their position and knowledge the doors of acceptance will open up.

Tactic #3: Remove Communication Barriers

For open and honest communication to work, we must first move to understand and then remove communication barriers with the subject matter experts.

Together work out your communication preferences and compromise on something that works well for both of you. The importance of adapting one’s communication preference to your SME cannot be underestimated.

A great beginning is developing an understanding of your SME’s mental state – is your SME happy, excited, frustrated, or even angry about working on the project? They may have other pressing priorities and your project may be like a mosquito buzzing around their head. Therefore, you will have to adjust your communication style accordingly.

As with active listening, don’t listen only to what the other person is saying. Listen to the emotions underneath the words. This will help you to clarify common goals. Ask their opinion about how this program will improve the work environment. How will this program help people succeed? Questions like this not only bubble up learning outcomes but also get your SME more involved in the project.

Tactic #4: Be Prepared to Disagree

Conflicts can be healthy! Don’t let the first serious disagreement lead to the end of the partnership with your subject matter experts. Instead, learn strategies for healthy conflict resolution.

Talk about both the facts and how you feel about them. Be open to understanding why your SME feels strongly about certain content, images, or processes. It’s easy to self-sabotage the relationship by trying to put yourself in a position of power as the “learning expert”. However, being as generous as you can in interpreting the other person’s actions and feelings will lead to both of you coming together. Be open to changing your mind if you discover you made a mistake and apologize quickly.

Tactic #5: Collaborative Compromise!

Compromise in the workplace sometimes gets a bad rap. But sometimes we have to compromise to get the hard work done. In this case let’s set the stage about compromise: “Individual commitment to a group effort to reach an agreed goal”. Compromise doesn’t have to be a win-lose scenario.

When you and your SME collaborate for an agreed compromise, you both integrate ideas and energies so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Balance getting your needs met with meeting the needs of the SME.

Remember, Your SME has worked hard to achieve the level of knowledge they have, respecting this will get you further than focusing on being right.

Tactic #6: Set Expectations

There is nothing wrong with setting some ground rules for working together. Setting the expectations with your SME will ensure everyone is on the same page at the same time.

  • Knowing your project may not be the SME’s main priority, be sure to establish clear guidelines for communication and collaboration. When and how often will you meet? Through which method – email Slack? Teams?
  • Create a collaboration area to minimize meetings and to respect the SME’s time. Use tools like Evernote, Google Docs or other project management tools to share information.
  • Be sure everyone is clear on deadlines and review cycles. Get the SME’s buy-in and write a schedule with agreed review dates.
  • Record meeting notes in a shared document to avoid misunderstandings.

To wrap this up

At the end of the day, you and the SME both want the same thing; to help people in the organization perform at the highest levels. Because people are people, this takes some negotiation and ground rules to meet those goals. Understand the barriers and use these 6 tactics to help guide your project journey and you’ll see higher success rates with your content and SME’s who actually want to work on projects.

I’ll leave you with these questions:

How can we better manage our relationships with SMEs so it’s less about who’s right, but what’s best for the people and the business?

How can we best support SMEs who may be juggling their day jobs with our projects?

I look forward to reading your answers below.

Don’t miss out on “Seriously-off-the-wall” conversations. Join the Learning Rebels Coffee Chat

(This post was originally written for TechSmith and adapted to call out SME barriers)

Shannon Tipton

Shannon Tipton

As Owner of Learning Rebels, Shannon Tipton is a skilled learning strategist, content developer and International speaker. Shannon has over 20 years of leadership experience developing successful learning strategies and infrastructures for training departments within organizations in North America, Europe and Korea.

Shannon works with people and organizations to develop learning solutions that brings actual business results. Recognized as bringing real-world expertise into the learning field, Shannon integrates technologies and social learning tools to strengthen workplace alignment, enhance collaboration and increase learning connectivity.

As author of “Disruptive Learning” Shannon frequently speaking at conferences across North America and Europe and ranks as one of the top 100 L&D influencers on Twitter (@stipton).

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