Sympathy for the Devil: understand your SME

– Here’s the content of the course

– Yes but where’s the stuff about background legislation and  the special cases procedure?

– This is a beginners’ course, they may only need that procedure once in six months, we’re covering what they need on day 1;

– But they need to understand the context – and what if they get a special case on day 1? I think it needs to be included so we can show for compliance that we’ve covered it; you can’t just cherrypick the subject.

– <groan>

Spider and fly in webThe relationship between an instructional designer and an SME (Subject Matter Expert) can be an archetype love-hate relationship. Often it’s more hate than love. But how often do we try to understand the SME?  This article shows how they feel, why they can be obstructive, and what we can do about it.

Have you ever seen a TV documentary or read a magazine article about a subject you know well? Did you feel it trivialised it? Or just skimmed the surface? Were you left thinking ‘Is that it?’  Welcome to the mind of the SME!

The SME knows a lot of things, but the SME doesn’t know what she knows.  She’s been steeped in the world of this subject for years. She feels most at home talking to other people with a similar depth of knowledge. On much of her remit, she has reached the goal of unconscious competence.  She knows the answers to questions, she knows the whys and wherefores of the subject, and she knows what to do. But a lot of the underlying knowledge is unconscious. It’s held in a schema – a mental framework.

Imagine a hugely complex mind-map.  But most of that is now unconscious. It provides the answers when she wants them, it helps her learn more about her subject, so she leaves it where it is and it doesn’t bother her – until you come along with your questions and your desire to pick out this piece of knowledge but not that, this concept but not that, this process but not that!

When you pick one concept it’s like pulling a string that drags out of her brain all the related concepts. (I was going to say like pulling a long hair out of the shower drain, but I won’t.) To cut the string and leave some concepts behind hurts her sense of what’s right in the world because what good is one little isolated concept on its own. How can you understand that without understanding the world it’s part of? She may not acknowledge it as such but she’s feeling pain.

Another SME trait is knowing the Big Picture and seeing why this piece of training really matters.  And for her, it’s a small step to go from ‘I know lots about this, so I see how important it is, so I don’t do This Bad Thing or That Bad Thing. I only do The Good Things.’ to  ‘ So if the employees only knew what I know – why they wouldn’t do The Bad Things, they’d do only The Good Things.’  You’ll see that assumption at work in a lot of compliance material which starts off by emphasising how important this is for the company and assuming that the employee will make the connection ‘then it must be good for me’.

This presentation I did on Slideshare a few years ago makes the same points in a more humorous way.

So what to do?

This is where the final stage of Action Mapping makes most sense. We’ve spent the previous stages building up a picture of practice activities to include in the learning material. (Practice for the daily work tasks the learners do, which contribute to business measures).  Now we identify the information/knowledge they need, and that we need to include in the training. But we pick out only enough information to get through the practice activities.  We’re not asking the SME what information the learner needs in order to do their job, or to be proficient at a subject – ONLY enough to get through this task. If the practice task is the right one, then that’ll be all they need to learn (or to know where to find).  If the SME wants to challenge, then it’s the practice task  that needs challenging, not the information.  Is it the right practice task, representative of what they do at work?

This is the guiding principle of Action Mapping – getting the information down to a level the learner can manage, and using the method gives you a framework for talking to the SME. Who knows, you might even hit it off!

Ok, Action Mapping’s one way of channeling the SME’s knowledge. What other ways are there? Over to you

Leave a Comment