Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ways of Effectively Leveraging your SME when developing e-learning

I write this blog because I'm a little upset about the fact that we used our SME as a glorified proofreader in a recent module, than someone who could actually provide shape to the learning and its activities. I've been thinking all night about what we could have done and should do in future to use our SME(s) more effectively. Here are a few thoughts and I write it from the perspective of what a client would like a professional e-learning consultant to do:

Do your homework

An SME is likely to be quite passionate about their topic. If you've had some material from them about the topic you're designing for, go through it and try to do as much research as you can, before you first meet them. In fact a lot of this starts even before you get any training material from your SME's. Understanding your customer starts from the moment you know that you're going to work with them. It means understanding who they are, what they do and how they do it. Its very poor form to walk in on day and ask the client "What do you do?" or "How are you different?". Instead say, "So here's what I've been able to gather about the work you do and your business model. I have a few questions...". A client and their SME are likely to feel more comfortable with a consultant that knows him and shows interest in his business than someone that's just taking notes.

Start with the big picture

Its always important as a consultant to start with the big picture of the problem you're trying to solve. Do you know about it? Confirm your understanding with the SME. If you don't know about it, ask. In situations where you've had separate meetings with different people, when you eventually do get them into the same room, share some history. Make sure everyone is on the same page. When you quantify the problem in your head, you build a greater emotional connection to it and as a result you work with greater zeal. Talk about how you expect the development process to work, agree on the SME's involvement and the frequency at which you'll need her. Surprises are nice when its Christmas -- not at work!

Demonstrate your understanding

You've been through the material the client sent you -- you surely understood something given that you did your homework (see above)! Let the SME know what you understand. Make things big and visible and ask your SME to point out gaps in your understanding. Once she's done, rephrase and share your understanding with her. Again, your understanding of the topic is essential for you to develop the training. This isn't a dispassionate piece of professional work -- the more you're emotionally involved, the more you'll be able to empathise with your eventual audience.

Draw, don't type

In the age of laptops its a great temptation to flip out the notebook and start making notes straight into the template you were asked to fill. The newsflash is that only you can see what you're typing! Who knows whether you interpreted the information right? Get as much as you can, onto a big whiteboard or flipchart. Even for the previous two steps, use a whiteboard. Make sure your SME has a marker so she can make changes/ additions. The documentation is secondary to you getting your answers and understanding them. When you make something big and visible, you not only build shared understanding, you give your SME the confidence that you're on the right track. Carry a camera, take a picture and immortalise your thoughts! Think of yourself as the consultant, not the notetaker.

If you feel you're bad at drawing and that's why you don't use the whiteboard, I strongly recommend Dan Roam's amazing book, "The Back of the Napkin". He describes some very simple tools and techniques that anyone can pick up to represent concepts visually. Click here to download tools from the book.

Action Map, don't Scope

I am a devotee of Cathy Moore's Action Mapping approach and I've used it on at least 2 separate projects with great success. You will often get from your SME, a document or a presentation with a description of the subject matter. The easy way and the traditional way out is to think of converting the presentation into e-learning. What you're doing in effect is not creating learning but an interactive Powerpoint deck. With some effort, your SME (if she's smart enough) could do that herself. Slideshare's a great place to share self playing presentations for free. How are you adding value?

Think about the business problem you agreed earlier. What should happen instead? What's the business goal? Quantify it with your SME and stakeholder and then agree on the actions that your learners need to perform, in order to reach that goal. With those actions in mind, think through the learning activities that will model their real life work environment. Agree these with your SME. And finally ask your SME for the absolutely, absolutely important information that your learners will need to perform these activities. The rest of the information can go into a job aid which you can create using Lean, Standard Work principles. By doing this, you're using your SME to reduce flab from your course and you're involving your SME to decide how this course will be followed up.

Storyboard, don't script

It may seem like an unnecessary overhead, but if that were the case we wouldn't have any movies anymore. Storyboarding is a technique that's been used in creative spheres for ages. You name a popular creative brand and they do storyboarding. Garrey Reynolds writes profusely about the virtue of Storyboarding and Planning Analog. As Steve Jobs says, your computer is a "bicycle for your mind." Planning on a computer clouds your mind with too many other issues. You'd rather use the computer to just build. Storyboarding with index cards is a lightweight method of deciding on the visuals and information architecture of your course. Its a great way to plan out branching scenarios. Its also a great place to involve your SME and gain agreement on what the course is going to look like, behave and the information its going to convey. A set of high quality pictures, pasted into a word processor, will ensure that your course builders know exactly what you need. Of course you may need to give your course builders some direction about the text you need on screen. I think that's perfectly all right to add later. The fact that you've involved your SME at the stage of storyboarding will mean that you have greater buy in, into what you're trying to achieve.

Seek frequent feedback

Build a personal relationship with your SME. Walk up to her and ask questions -- don't send a 20 page script with 15 questions to type in answers for. Catch them on IM and get clarifications. Do phone calls. Of course, all of this needs some sort of agreement with your SME on the way you want to work, but of course you can decide this early enough. Try as far as possible not to create an "US vs THEM" situation. Talking to SME's frequently makes them understand that you're part of their team.

Agree, don't state

If you've noticed, one of the words I've used most frequently is "agree". This is key to the approach I'm suggesting here. You may be a learning expert, but she's a Subject Matter Expert and she has some very clear thoughts about how she represents her subject. So its important that you agree the style of representing learning and the approach to the training module. Make sure your SME is comfortable. I can't deny there'll be some tough conversations and some convincing to be done. I'll be surprised if you don't encounter resistance to any of the change you're trying to create. I'd expect that your consulting skills come into play for this -- I strongly recommend you read Linda Rising's "Fearless Change" and "Getting to Yes" and "Beyond Reason - Using Emotions as you Negotiate" by Roger Fischer. I particularly recommend Linda's book because it deals with Influencing and different patterns you can use to facilitate change in an organization and in someone's thinking.

Work with, not away from your SME's

There's obvious benefit in colocation. You can walk up to your SME's, you can observe them at work, you understand the culture of the company you're serving and everyone has clear visibility in the work you're doing because in many ways you're playing a de-facto employee at your clients. Of course there are times when you can't work colocated because the client is in a different part of the world and there's a cap on travel costs. In such a case, think of how you can build in some ritual communication into your process. Think of whether your SME can do narration for your course if you need it. There's always the virtue of getting professional narration, but there's also the virtue of hearing a familiar voice that says, "Hi I'm Richard Stallman and I'm going to take you through this course on Free Software." And please, please, please use the SME's language as far as possible. If you're changing their language have a good reason to do so; don't dumb down the content because YOU don't understand it!

Don't create silos

Given the volume of work that elearning consultancies have (and I've evaluated more than a couple of dozen in the last few months), its natural that the builders work separately from the instructional designer that work separately from the graphic artists. I'm a great believer in the concept of shared purpose and vision and the virtues of working in teams as against being individual contributors. Get your builders and graphic artists to know the client. The builder should really understand the topic almost as well as the designer (similar to a business analyst). The sooner you can create a sense of shared purpose and customer commitment in the team, the better. Now this can mean a change in the way most elearning firms operate, but I can imagine that by keeping teams small and encouraging generalizing specialists it is possible to work out a model that fits this kind of an approach.


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your understanding of the topic is essential for you to develop the training. This isn't a dispassionate piece of professional work -- the more you're emotionally involved, the more you'll be able to empathise with your eventual audience.
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bushra umair said...

"What do you do?" or "How are you different?". Instead say, "So here's what I've been able to gather about the work you do and your business model. I have a few questions..
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fando jone said...

Talk about how you expect the development process to work, agree on the SME's involvement and the frequency at which you'll need her. Surprises are nice when its Christmas -- not at work!

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