What the heck is an instructional designer? Part 4: SMEs and Content

What is an instructional designer?

This is the fourth post in a series where I answer the question: “What the heck is an instructional designer?” Stay tuned for each part as I take you behind the curtain!

Missed the other parts? Check them out here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Last time I talked about the practical aspects of converting training into an online format.

Now, when all the pre-work is knocked out and I’m confident the client and I are on the same page, subject matter gathering begins.

I’m usually surprised to find that people think I’m an expert in some topic or another and then create the training straight from my own brain. While I do learn lots of cool stuff along the way because I get exposed to the content, the truth is, I generally don’t know jack about pastries before I’m tasked with making doughnuts.

I think the misunderstanding comes from classic standards where the experts in a particular topic educated novices about it. This is the academic approach. And it makes sense from that perspective. My college courses were taught by people who had dedicated their lives to the subject they were teaching. They had a Masters or PhD in it.

This often happens within companies, as well. Someone is really good at a particular skill – maybe sales – and eventually they get burned out or they reach the logical peak of their career and then move into teaching newer employees. Sometimes they were really good at it, sometimes not so much.

But, as an instructional designer, I’m educated in the process and systems of learning. How content goes together to be learned in an efficient but effective way. So someone else has to hand me the doughnut recipe. In other words, I know about the baking, and ovens and mixers, but I need some help with those specific doughnut ingredients. (sorry for jumping to a different metaphor. Baked goods are really more my forte at this point in the explanation. plus I might be hungry.)

Occasionally, I have access to a brilliant subject matter expert (SME) who can provide me with subject matter on the training topic. Someone who has done the thing that needs to be taught and they hand me a stack of brilliant, concise information that I can have fun translating into beautiful, easy to understand training content.

More often than not, I spend time talking with someone who maybe sort of knows (but often turns out to be completely out of touch with what really needs to be taught).. Or I’m handed a 3,000 page manual. Or I get to interview someone who feels that I’m taking their job away from them (who am I?! THEY’RE the expert!) and is therefore quite difficult to work with. Or I get someone who is such a high-level expert that they don’t know how to break things down.

But getting the subject matter is really important so there are numerous ways of handling SME challenges. I’ve had some really great experiences with SMEs who started off with a strong sense of hostility but then became a great ally. A partner in crime, even.

Sometimes my SME is grateful I’m there. They know that they are experts but don’t have the skills, interest or time to organize their content and attend to the nit-picky little details of structuring training.

One of my favorite clients is like this. He’s brilliant with the subject matter but dislikes the nerdy, process-driven steps it takes to put the stuff he knows into a comprehensive whole. His subject matter is also highly regulated so I’m happy to geek out on the details of the system so he can spend time on the accuracy of the training topics.

Ultimately, that’s a perfect scenario. Sort of a beneficial symbiotic relationship between designer and SME.

Regardless of the relationship, I can’t do my job without SMEs.

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