Working with subject experts 3 – asking the right questions

There are plenty of ways of getting the information you need. The worst way is to get the SME to produce a PowerPoint deck. What you will get is far too much information, expressed almost entirely in bullet points. The SME will be aware that this isn’t the finished article, but expects that somehow you will weave your magic by adding a load of pictures and other decorations, and sticking a quiz on the end. But you’re not going to do that, are you?
Every slide, no every bullet, that you remove from the SME’s slide deck will involve intense negotiations. The SME will be in mourning for ages afterwards, if indeed they ever recover. Better to avoid this process altogether.
One way to research the topic is to sit in on an existing class, perhaps one for which the SME is the instructor. Talk to participants to see what they found useful and what they found confusing. Extract the important learning points, but even more importantly, note down all the instructor’s war stories, examples, anecdotes and jokes. All too often, the reason why learning content is so dull is because it is so matter of fact – it has no personality. The stories are a lot more than entertainment. They provide context and relevance. They allow learners to see patterns and make connections, which is what learning is really all about.
Chances are you’ll also need to interview the SME. Documents and slide decks are OK up to a point but they are a long way from where you want to be. Your focus is on the performance. What do you want the learner to be able to do? What activities can you devise that will allow them to practise doing this? What knowledge does the learner need in order to engage in this activity? Credit is due here to Cathy Moore who spells out the questions to ask as part of the process she calls Action Mapping.
If your SME has only ever experienced knowledge dumps then you may have difficulty communicating what it is that you are aiming to achieve. The best way to overcome this barrier is to show the SME the best example you can find of performance-focused learning content. If you can’t find anything, perhaps you need to create some demo material yourself.
Unless you are really lucky (or skilful), the SME will still want to include more material than you believe is really appropriate. This is the point to make the distinction between courses and resources. The aim of the course is to engage the learner’s interest in the topic and help them to develop sufficient confidence to move forward independently. That is not the end of the story. Learning will continue back on the job and learners will inevitably have many questions of detail, which is where the resources come in, available online, on-demand. Resources are not an optional extra; they are step 2 in the plan. All the information that the SME recommends will be included; it’s just that most of it will be at step 2.
Finally, don’t forget to thank the SME for all their hard work. Even better, credit them on the materials. They will appreciate it.
Part 1 Part 2
Coming in part 4: What when you are the SME?
First published in Inside Learning Technologies, November 2011