The term, 'Subject Matter Experts' or SMEs typically brings to our mind the faces of 'content experts' that have contributed their expertise to our instructional design projects. Along with these faces, some of us are reminded of the challenges and frustrations that we have felt along the way. But is there a Perfect SME or is it an illusion? Is the perfect SME a mythical character from far, far away or can we find one on this planet? Is it a myth or a reality?
Well, the 'perfect SME' is an illusion or an enigma just like a 'perfect instructional designer' or a 'perfect human being'. However, you can learn to partner with SMEs and make the relationship work for you and the project. But before you venture out and attempt to partner with SMEs, it is important to understand three things. These may not be true in all projects but in most cases, these are valid:
1) Most SMEs are typically not deeply interested in developing the training material/manual/course or whatever else is that you are interested in developing because - it's not their job. They are not instructional designers. > Their interest and engagement varies.
2) Most SMEs are low on time and always in demand. They would prefer to use their time and expertise in their area of chosen work. In most cases, they did not choose to work with you on the instructional design project; someone asked them to do it. > Their availability is always a challenge.
3) Some SMEs may not be 'experts' but were asked to contribute to the project. And there are many good reasons why. They might have been 'experts' in the area a few years ago and since then have moved into other areas of work or they were doing the job the longest or they were available. > Their expertise may not be at the level you expected.
Once you appreciate and truly understand these realities, it is easier to partner with SMEs. Remember the word 'partner' and not 'work with or manage'. Working on instructional design projects with other contributors including project managers, programmers, graphic artists and content SMEs is all about cooperation, communication and partnership. Infact, each of us is an SME in our area of work. If we look at a project with this lens, no one is an outsider and no contribution is less or more. Everyone is required and their expertise is valuable.
The bottom line is that no one is perfect. In a project, we all have to work with each other and learn to capitalize on the given competencies and overcome any limitations. Good work happens when we focus on both the task and the relationship.