Conducting SME Interviews: When Source Content Is Equivalent to Grey Matter

Let’s face it. Source content isn’t always written down. It’s not always packaged up in perfectly organized folders. Sometimes there’s not even a sticky note to be found! So what happens when source content is all in someone’s head? We interview subject matter experts, or SMEs.

This situation comes up a lot, actually. The majority of the time when we ask, “Do you have any source material you can share with us?”, the answer is radio silence…followed by a half-hearted mumble that “It’s in someone’s head.” That’s okay! That’s why you sought out custom content development in the first place, right?

Extracting content, processes, procedures, and best practices out of the minds of subject matter experts is a critical and essential step in custom development. The quality of the curriculum depends on it!

The first step is to make sure the right people have a seat at the table (or on the phone, as it may be). Who is the information gatekeeper? We need to talk to that person! And when we do, please…make sure they realize that sharing information with us is not a job hazard. They need to be ready and willing to unlock their depth of knowledge and invaluable experience. We are merely documenting the as-is or should-be processes that will essentially make their jobs easier!

Then come the QUESTIONS. Be ready, because we are about to ask a LOT of them – and not those easy yes/no questions. We’ll ask thoughtful questions, ones that make you contemplate all of the information stored in that grey matter. Some may make you pause. Some may be uncomfortable. Some may make you say, “Huh…I’ve never thought of that.” All are equally important to have honest responses.

What do new hires need to know? What do they have trouble with when they first start? Why? Can you give me an example? What would make their first weeks or months easier? Tell me about a time when that happened to you. What was it like? What made that decision difficult, complicated, or just a grey area? What factors contributed to your decision? What was the outcome? How did it affect your customers? What was the customer’s experience during all of this?

We’ll ask one question followed by a few deeper questions. At any point you can cry uncle or say, “I don’t know,” but for our partnership to be successful, we need to pool resources for the greater good. Lobotomies just aren’t practical and quite frankly, we aren’t qualified to do those. Instead, we pride ourselves on making sense of the mess, the complex, the things that make the heads of new hires spin. We can map out processes and draw connections that you inherently make so that it can be more easily understood by someone who is new, cross-skilling, or up-skilling.

There’s real value in asking all of these questions.

  • From your responses, we are able to formulate learning objectives – what your audience really needs to walk away with knowing or doing.
  • We can also design a training plan or curriculum map.
  • We can highlight not only what to teach, but the most effective way to teach it! And I’m not talking modality; I’m talking about activities that simulate a real environment that have the pressure, weight, and levity of decisions, but without the consequences of those decisions. I’m talking about examples and scenarios, that when woven throughout your courseware will undoubtedly prepare your learners for life beyond the classroom.

And really, isn’t that where your ROI lies? Because if we’re truly being honest with each other, there’s a big difference between customizing content for you and actually developing custom content. The difference is subtle when you read the words, but your learners will catch on immediately if the training was developed specifically for them…or someone kind of like them.

We can’t do any of this without interviewing subject matter experts who have the source content in their grey matter. So go grab a glass of water, because we have some questions for you…

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