Collaborating with one or more subject-matter experts (SMEs) on an eLearning project can be a minefield. Who does what? Who makes decisions? How do you resolve disagreements? When The eLearning Guild asked members for tips on improving relationships with SMEs, a lot of responses addressed setting expectations in SME relationships. The following tips are just a taste; download the full report, Practical Tips for Instructional Designers Working with SMEs, for more great advice on building and nurturing collaborative relationships with SMEs.

Kick-off meetings can help set expectations

Throughout a project, clear, open communication that respects the SME’s time and communication preferences is essential. That’s all well and good, but you need something to communicate about. Successful project management includes launching the project with a kick-off meeting that:

  • Stipulates roles and responsibilities, including which team members and stakeholders are the final decision-makers.
  • Sets out a schedule for regular meetings, check-ins, and informal updates—e.g., a monthly team meeting, a weekly 15-minute check-in, and short daily emailed updates.
  • Presents a written document—this could also be issued as a result of the kick-off meeting—that spells out roles, responsibilities, deliverables, timelines, scope, constraints, and other essential details.

Thorough preparation shows respect

The best SMEs are extremely knowledgeable. They’re also likely to be very busy, with many demands on their time. Acknowledging their expertise and valuing the time they spend sharing it with you will certainly smooth the relationship. There are other ways to ensure that your SMEs are eager collaborators—rather than reluctant “voluntold” participants:

  • Prepare, prepare, prepare: Do enough research to have a basic understanding of the topic and the ability to ask probing, relevant questions (and understand the replies).
  • Keep the conversation focused on specific learning goals, ideally centered on what learners need to be able to do.
  • When the project seems to be growing beyond its original scope, firmly refocus and, if needed, spell out the consequences: extra time, expense, etc.
  • When meeting with executive-level SMEs, find out which of their next-level reports might have more of the deep knowledge you need—and be more available to work with you.

When conflict does arise …

Conflict or disagreement on how to implement a project or what content to include is a frequent result of collaborations between IDs and SMEs. To help defuse and resolve conflict:

  • Handle disagreements in person whenever possible to avoid additional misunderstandings.
  • Be open to new ideas—but also have solid, evidence-based reasons for the approach you favor; discussing the pros and cons of each proposed solution can help clarify the best choice.
  • Have a clear understanding of who makes which decisions and know when to let go; there are some conflicts you cannot win.

More tips

The free report Practical Tips for Instructional Designers Working with SMEs includes dozens of tips and additional great advice for setting expectations in SME relationships and managing these complex, but essential, collaborations. Learn how to avoid common mistakes, improve communication, and burnish your own skills to ensure successful projects. Download your copy today.