12 tips for working with Subject Matter Experts

The power of social collaboration in practice!  These tips came from a wiki I facilitated while teaching  an introductory  Technical Communication Class at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Contact me if you want the full list of 76 challenges and solutions.

Challenge Solution
1. SMEs do not present information in an organized manner. Communicate requests using templates that make specific requests. Provide the SME with an outline of the information required, the schedule, and meeting agenda in advance. This can be emailed to the SME to help them prepare, and focus on the topics you plan to discuss.
2. SMEs sometimes expect you to have background knowledge or training similar to theirs. Request SME to utilize clear, concise, common language and follow a pre-determined format. Have the SME provide very simple explanations for complex situations. Remind the SME not to assume that users/readers are familiar with the subject. Always try to learn more about the subject; the SME may be correct about the need for additional information.
3. Many SMEs are reluctant to give you information if they don’t see the benefit for them. Explain how the SME’s input will improve the organization and may make their job easier. For example, by documenting their knowledge in a manual, they may not need to spend as much time explaining procedures to new employees.
Try to make it clear that your organizational role is to remove what can be a laborious task of writing documentation.
Be useful to your SME. You can assist the SME and facilitate the drafting process by checking spelling and grammar in the GUI.
4. Sometimes SMEs are on a time constraint. Work out a service-level agreement at the beginning of the project to which everyone involved has agreed. Ensure that the SME knows the deadlines of the project. Set intermediate deadlines that are realistic both for the project and the SME.Be on time for the interview. If traveling to the interview, get reliable directions, and allow plenty of time in case of unexpected traffic.Control the flow of the interview. If the SME gets off the subject, gently bring them around to the topic at hand.
Agree with your SME on the means of communication, whether in person, via the phone, or email. It may be helpful to email the SME beforehand with the list of questions you need addressed.
Always be prepared for the interview in order not to waste your SME’s time. Read any available documentation as you can frequently find answers to your questions there.
5. The SME gives information that is too technically advanced for the audience. Do an audience analysis before the project begins with the SME. This enables the SME to give information that is appropriate to the audience.Ask the SME questions to clarify and simplify the information they’re providing. Make sure you understand what they’re trying to say before you leave them.For complicated processes, draw a thumbnail sketch or flowchart of the process the SME is describing. Make sure you understand the process thoroughly in order to revise the information to make it more understandable to the audience.
6. The SME does not like answering many questions. Provide the SME with the questions prior to any meeting or interview, if possible (also see #4). Provide 5 to 10 in-depth, open-ended questions during the first interview in order to help the SME provide meaningful answers. Moreover, this underscores your commitment as the technical communicator to be efficient and mindful of the SME’s time. Group your questions logically in order not to re-visit the topics that have already been discussed unless clarification is necessary
7. The SME may be concerned about being misquoted during interviews with the technical communicator. The technical communicator should involve the SME in the drafting process and validate all information that is gathered from the SME by providing periodic drafts to allow for revision. This builds trust between the parties by crediting the contributions of the individuals involved and providing joint validation at each stage of the document creation.
8. When taking over a project, the SME may be used to working with another writer and may not give you the support he gave the other writer. Establishing the SME’s confidence in you is critical. Ask the person you are replacing if he can give you a thumbnail sketch of what he might expect, quirks, or what kind of format he likes. Try to make the transition as seamless as possible. Changing horses in mid-stream is never easy. Plan ahead and don’t try any sudden changes unless that is what the SME wants. Make sure you communicate how you work upfront.
9. The SME has been assigned to the project but he does not really know the material and does not want to communicate with you out of fear. Give the SME as much time as possible to come up to speed. If the deadline is approaching, talk to the SME. Suggest that the SME contact colleagues to collaborate on the subject, or suggest individuals that the SME may consider approaching. If no progress is made, quietly talk to the team leader. Suggest to the team leader that additional support may be necessary to meet the impending deadline. Don’t let the problem grow too big and endanger the deadline.
Try to make it clear from the beginning which information and support you will need from your SME during this project. Start your communication as early as possible to feel out the SME’s technical abilities.
10. When using a SME to troubleshoot an ongoing problem it is easy to duplicate previous efforts. Supply the SME with all historical data related to the issue. Have staff available to answer questions the SME may have that are related to the issue.
11. On a large project SMEs often do not understand how the end product will function and the interrelationship of their work with others. It is very important that the SME is provided with a clear scope of the work. On large projects it is wise to include a project lead and involve staff to obtain an end product that meets your organizations expectations.
You’ll probably need more than one SME for the larger project. In the SW industry, developers usually play the role of SMEs for technical writers. But they often can’t help you with the ‘big picture’ of the product. Product Managers or Business Analysts can be useful in such situations.
12. The SME may be of a different cultural or linguistic background. Seek an interpreter or do self-research regarding the SME’s background.
If you have linguistic difficulties, try to use more diagrams or other illustrations when communicating with your SME.

About Learning in the News

Musings from Michele B. Medved about the application of adult learning theories, methodologies and best practices in the real world
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