How to Avoid Herding Cats When Working With Subject Matter Experts

Teresa Chiapputo
Posted: November 30, 2017

As an instructional designer, training manager, or learning and development leader — one of the most important resources available to you are subject matter experts (SMEs). Yes, they can be creative, inspiring, and a pleasure to work with — or they can be non-responsive, passive aggressive, and make you want to pull your hair out. As you work with your project team, you have the ability to manage your SME’s experience and make your life (and theirs) much easier in the process by planning, communicating, and providing appreciation for their contributions.

Keep these three tips in mind to avoid herding cats when working with SMEs…

1. Choose The Right SMEs

When possible, help your client or business partner choose the right SME(s) by providing parameters for SME support. Determine SME needs and requirements for the project and then review those requirements with your client or business partner. Based on SME needs, one or two might be sufficient, or you may need a group of SMEs that have diverse experience and can look at the issue from several different angles. Here are a few quick considerations to get you started:

  • What skills, knowledge, and experience are needed?
  • What are the various angles and perspectives needed to look at the problem and create an appropriate solution?
  • How much time is required to perform SME duties?
  • How are you going to communicate with SMEs (face to face, virtually, etc.), and is this a medium in which the SME is effective?
  • Does the SME need authority to make decisions?
  • What kind of time commitment is needed from the SME? And do they have the support (management) necessary to perform their tasks?

2. Set Your SMEs Up for Success

Every project team member comes into a new project with their own expectations and perspective. If you do not set the stage (expectations and goals) for SMEs from the beginning, you could end of herding cats with little success of getting what you need. Having an initial SME meeting to discuss expectations and answer questions can be a great starting point to set the stage for a successful project. A few things to cover in that meeting include:

  • Project goals and timeline
  • Introduction of project team members and responsibilities
  • SME responsibilities, activities, and weekly routines
  • Time needed to complete SME responsibilities and effectively participate in weekly routines
  • Communication protocols

3. Value Your SME’s Time & Contribution

Once you’ve successfully set expectations and everyone knows who’s on first and how to move to second, don’t forget to respect the criteria of time and effort you established for the SMEs. Requirements and needs can change throughout the life cycle of a project; it is key to communicate these changes as quickly as possible and then check to see if your SMEs can still commit to the new requirements. Don’t assume that just because SMEs signed up for “A” means they can or want to do “B.”

Finally, recognize and appreciate often. No one is getting special perks or extra pay for being a SME, so give praise and say thank you regularly!

Bearing these tips in mind, sometimes it’s nice to have an extra set of hands so you can let go of some! If you need help with staffing or support for your next learning project — let’s chat!


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