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Dealing with Difficult SMEs

Updated: May 22, 2023

Even with all your diligence, planning and commitment to the project, you may encounter SMEs who don't meet their obligations. What do you do in these circumstances?

Document everything. Keep detailed records of when you asked for information, the requested deadline and the date you received information. Note how the SME's actions (or inactions) have affected the project schedule, budget and/or the completeness of the training materials. Although you should always try to resolve these problems yourself, your notes will help if you have to escalate an issue to the business sponsor.

Consider your options. If you aren't getting the information you need from SMEs, look for alternate routes. You may be able to glean tidbits of knowledge from trainers, other SMEs, your business sponsor, power users, etc. Of course, you should try to validate this information from the SME, but offering this information sometimes jump-starts the SME back into action.

Use diplomacy. If you need to confront a SME, do it directly and diplomatically. Have your documentation ready to support your statements, and make the SME aware of the problem that you're facing. Then offer to help find a solution. Although you may be frustrated at this point, remain calm but firm in your discussion.

Be prompt. Address issues as soon as they arise instead of waiting for a crisis. Putting out a small fire is always easier than waiting for a wildfire to consume your energy. Call a meeting and talk to the SME about your concerns. There might be a reasonable explanation for the issue. Listen closely for clues and see if you can find a way to work around it. However, if the issue continues, escalate to the SME's superior or the business sponsor with your documentation in hand.

SME Types

Below are several common SME characteristics and possible solutions for handling a difficult personality. See if these sound familiar to you.

SME Characteristics: They know it all. They want to be in charge. They don't see your value.

Possible Solutions:

  • Show respect and appreciation for the SME's knowledge.

  • Listen carefully to the SME for the facts among the emotion. Then inquire about them, to help focus the exchange of information.

  • Keep a thick skin and remember your importance in the project. Don't take offense or be defensive about their attitude.

  • Give the SME responsibilities for creating some of the content, but let them know you will "support" them with the instructional integrity of the material.

  • Emphasize that you are a liaison and an expert in your own regard and that your role is to support the SME in sharing his/her knowledge.

SME Characteristics: They are rarely available. They are late with most of their reviews.

Possible Solutions:

  • Be persistent about keeping them on task. Send emails, call and drop by to see what assistance you can provide to keep them on track.

  • If they miss a meeting, contact them immediately to reschedule.

  • Thank them when they are on time with reviews and provide sufficient input.

  • If they don't respond, contact them every 1-2 days, emphasizing that the job needs to be done and reminding them of their commitment to be part of the project.

  • Escalate to the business sponsor when necessary.

  • If necessary, post your training materials without review, but make it clear to all stakeholders that the material is DRAFT until the SME provides feedback.

SME Characteristics: They don't think they're the right SME for the project. They don't see how they can help you.

Possible Solutions:

  • Don't expect too much from the SME. Do as much research and preparation on your own, and double check your information with the SME.

  • Try to show the SME how they can help by giving specific examples of the information you need.

  • Show the SME samples of your previous work and explain how SMEs helped with the projects.

  • Take one small (easy) chunk of content along with their input about the topic and transform it into a small learning module. This will help them see how the process works, experience some early success and build their confidence.

SME Characteristics: They refuse to help. They have an "in your face" confrontation style.

Possible Solutions:

  • Acknowledge the SME's attitude and try to discover their concerns about helping.

  • Stress that you are not a threat to them. You want to make them look good.

  • Get support from the business sponsor and other key stakeholders, and explore other possible SMEs to replace the difficult one.

SME Characteristics: They worry about the project. They constantly inquire about deadlines.

Possible Solutions:

  • Assure them of your intentions to deliver quality training on or before the stated deadline.

  • Cultivate their confidence by sticking to the schedule.

  • Build extra review cycles with smaller chunks of training materials to keep them busy.

SME Characteristics: They inundate you with information. They don't want to help you weed through for the key content.

Possible Solutions:

  • Assure them that you want to create thorough training, but without overloading the learner with too much detail.

  • Show them a sample of your previous work that started out with large amounts of information that you whittled down.

  • Focus on learning objectives and have the SME help you match content to the agreed-upon objectives so you can weed out any extraneous information.

  • If the SME still considers some questionable content important, consider putting that information into job aids, online help, FAQs or another format.

SME Characteristics: They show no interest in the project. They are reluctant to participate.

Possible Solutions:

  • Ask the SME very specific questions based on facts that they can answer with little effort.

  • Do enough homework to know how the SME will benefit from good training. If you can't determine a benefit, you probably need a new SME.

  • Send the questions via email, and follow up with a phone call to verify receipt and confirm a deadline for their response.

  • Explore whether you can find other content experts to review the training materials.

SME Characteristics: They nitpick everything. They want to make lots of changes.

Possible Solutions:

  • Be very clear about their responsibilities and your expectations during each step of the development process.

  • Thank them for their detailed feedback, but emphasize more realistic approaches to review.

  • Provide them with a review guideline to help them focus on content instead of nitpicks, and coach them on its use.

Celebrating Success

The end of a project is just as important as the beginning for building a strong relationship with your SME. It's a time when you can enhance your credibility, prove your dedication, get input from others, evaluate the training and plan for even more success in the future. Try these tips for solidifying the alliance with your SME.

Debrief. Hold a wrap-up meeting, and invite all the stakeholders who have been involved in the project. Allow everyone to provide their input on what worked well, what didn't, what should happen in future projects and what shouldn't.

Follow up. After the wrap-up meeting, be sure to follow up with your SMEs and share the information gathered during the meeting. In this critical follow-up, address any loose ends and ask for the SME's final approval of project completion.

Say 'thank you'. It's simple, it's essential and it's good business. Both public and private demonstrations of gratitude help you build a strong team bond and show recognition for those who contributed to the success of your program. When the project is over, publicize its success and once again acknowledge the contributors.

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