5 Tips to Get Your SME to Think Like an Instructional Designer

April 22, 2016



When putting together a customer training development team, you typically bring on board a subject matter expert (SME) and an instructional designer (ID). Both play a vital role in creating an engaging and effective online customer training program. But what if your organization intends to forgo the ID function and only wants a SME on the team?

First, let’s take a brief look at what each expert does

Instructional Designer: An ID models a customer training program based on how learners best absorb knowledge. To do this, the ID utilizes instructional principles shaped by scholarly research into the strategies that enable successful learning outcomes.

An ID is also well versed in the latest digital training formats, from learning management systems (LMS) to multimedia creation tools. The ID role requires abstract knowledge of educational theory as well as technical know-how.

Subject Matter Expert: Like the name implies, a SME possesses in-depth knowledge of the content you want to teach to your customers. They have domain-specific skills or insight. That person could be a staff member who works in the area the customer training program is based upon, or an outside consultant added to the team for their expertise.

Related Reading: The Key People You’ll Need to Build a Killer Customer Training Program

Although the SME has content knowledge, they may lack the ability to devise training in a way that learners benefit from it. That’s the gap the ID fills in the development of a customer training program.

5 tips for using your SME

Yet you can still create a great customer training course without an ID by having your SME follow these tips.

Set clear goals for the SME. Make sure the SME understands the purpose of the training, whether it’s to impart technical skills or higher-level subject matter knowledge. Knowing the goal informs how the customer training program is designed. A program to teach software utilization will likely be a shorter, skills-acquisition-based training program. To make the learner an expert in a particular field requires a more intensive series of courses.


Related Reading: 7 Reasons to Ditch Workshops & Webinars for Online Customer Training


Put the SME in the learners’ shoes. Ask the SME to think like the learner taking the customer training course. Is it someone who has no prior knowledge of the subject matter or a more experienced individual? Because your SME has such an abundance of content knowledge they may assume the learner does also. That may not be the case. Once the SME understands the learner’s perspective, they can develop an appropriate customer training program.

Ask the SME to pare down the content. Your SME holds an encyclopedic data bank of knowledge. That’s why they are a SME. However, not all that information needs to be included in your customer training program. One of main tasks of the SME is to separate the essential from the nice-to-know facts. Only the essentials become part of the customer training.

Get the SME to think outside the box. Today’s customer training programs can be delivered in a variety of formats, from traditional instructor-led classes to digital learning that incorporates videos, games, quizzes, and animation. Have the SME design training with those different platforms in mind. Instead of merely reciting a relevant case study, ask the SME to convert that content into a role-playing simulation or video enactment. The SME may simply want to dispense information to the learner, so remind them that the best way learners acquire skills is by doing and by seeking out the answers themselves. Therefore, the SME should provide thought-provoking questions and relevant exercises rather than PowerPoint presentations and lecture notes.

Related reading: As Education Grows Beyond the Classroom, How Will the Role of Instructional Designers Evolve?

Acquaint your SME with the tech tools. Your SME may be familiar with the all the technology available to develop customer training programs — everything from LMS to video production platforms. Yet even if that individual enters without those skills, today’s edtech tools have progressed to a point where even newcomers can easily master their use in a relatively short period. At the beginning of the process, make sure your SME has at least a basic knowledge of those tools and how to use them in developing the customer training course. Even SMEs appreciate learning something new.




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