instructional design competencies

3 tips for getting better content from your SMEs (subject-matter experts)

One of the constant challenges instructional designers face in building quality training programs is getting the right information out of their subject matter experts (SMEs). Interviewing SMEs is a skill best honed over time, for nothing can prepare you for the roadblocks you'll face when gathering the content you need to begin pulling your course together. These three tips should help you cut to the chase, and simplify your content gathering efforts.

First, prepare intensely for SME interviews. What would you do if you were job consisted of interviewing Hollywood's biggest A-list actors, and you were only going to get them seated with you for a few hours during which time your conversation would be videotaped? This is the challenge James Lipton from the show "Inside the Actor's Studio" faces on a regular basis during production of the series. Being a fan of the show I can tell you that his line of questioning is always direct, relevant to the actor's career, and even able to catch some of his biggest guests by surprise at their level of detail. Think of your SME interviews in the same light. Mr. Lipton was himself asked at one point how he prepares for these high-stakes interviews, and his answer was very telling:

“Nothing is handed to me. I get raw material from my researcher… and then I watch all the movies, read everything that the person has written about himself or herself, and I go through all the articles that have been written about them, and from that I distill the blue index cards, which are approximately 300-500 [cards] for each person”. 

Prior to you scheduling SME interviews, you two should gather as much information about desired performance, target audience, experience and background of the SME, etc. never walk into or treat a SME interview casually or show up unprepared. 

Secondly, and along the lines of our first step is to talk to the target audience for your training. In many instructional design projects, the SME will serve as an intermediary between yourself and the target audience. Your client will in many cases assume that the SME can provide you with all of the content you will need. As a check and balance to the content your SME provides you, we collaborate Gleaned invaluable insights from members of the target audience for the courses we are developing. Typically, target audience members are closer to the front lines of the desired performance than the SME and can provide invaluable feedback to your training design efforts.

Lastly we've got a tip for you that at first might appear controversial or make your SME cringe. Don't accept content from SMEs in PowerPoint format. PowerPoint's linear workflow was originally designed for speakers to outline their talks, but in doing so has a tendency to degrade content in favor of formatting. There is nothing worse for you as an instructional designer than to sit there staring at a PowerPoint deck loaded with bulleted lists. PowerPoint and other "slideware" is used by SMEs to condense content that you need to build a good training course into the lowest common denominator that can fit in a bulleted list. Our challenge to you, should you choose to accept it- don't settle for slideware when you know the bulk of the content you need is in the SMEs had or in other document forms. 

The minute we request content from a SME and are emailed a PowerPoint deck we quickly and without opening the slideware request additional content in either .pdf or Microsoft Word format. 

These three strategies are just ones that we use and have found useful when gathering content from SMEs. I'm sure there are more tips and tricks out there, and would love to hear about techniques you use to pry the necessary content from your SMEs. What are some of your favorite techniques for getting at the content you need?

Alex Santos

Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, alex@collabor8learning.com or via Twitter@collabor8alex.

Are you fluent in Wiki yet?

Wikis are one of the most underutilized tools in the instructional designer's toolbox. As trainers, it is imperative that we engage the learner beyond the classroom in order to effect real, permanent, and quantifiable changes in behavior. Yet, often times I find designers and trainers unwilling to engage their audiences beyond the classroom with this tool. Several reasons for this exist.

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Firstly, some training teams lament they are constrained by IT policies not conducive to collaborative tools. Some training managers have even asked,"

Can I implement a wiki bypassing IT altogether?" While the answer is yes, you can go with a SaaS vendor and be up and running in under ten minutes, it is advisable to not bypass your IT team and instead model the collaborative spirit you want to see in your workforce. You must be the change you want to see in the world, even if you sometimes feel like strangling your IT people.

Secondly, trainers and designers often lack knowledge of the power, flexibility, and ease of use of today's wiki software. Sure, we've all performed research on Wikipedia, but few designers and trainers have experimented with open-source wiki technology. As performance engineers and learning strategists, we must tinker with the latest tech and evaluate its utility for our learning systems. Failure to do so ensures we miss out on opportunities for our learners, as well as for our own development and understanding of the many ways technology is changing the training landscape. For far less money than many training teams spend on over-hyped learning management systems, it's time we spend a fraction of that budget on tailoring a wiki to engage learners and to supplement our training efforts outside of formal training events.

Finally, there are fears and misunderstandings of this technology. The main fear is of the unknown. While most people have used Wikipedia, it is but one example and not an ordinary example of what wiki technology is capable of. Yet, since it is the most common reference point for most people, many mistakenly draw conclusions about the technology from this vantage point. Fears of this technology range from how it can be used to support a community, to the cultural effects on the organization from having such an open and transparent technology available to all. Having a wiki in and by itself does not a collaborative culture make, and without content worth maintaining or people who care to maintain it no wiki in the world can grow and flourish.

The capacity to build and engage a community of learners is one which I believe will be essential to your relevance as an instructional designer, teacher, or trainer. In fact, “social learning” was already added to one of the nine existing Areas of Expertise in the ASTD Competency Model (middle tier). You can begin increasing your fluency with wikis as a social learning technology by downloading and experimenting with Tiddlywiki, one of the many open-source wiki platforms available. Tiddlywiki is a wonderful personal notebook you can use to familiarize yourself with the technology before moving to larger and more complex systems. Simply download it, save it to a place in your computer, and create a shortcut to it from your browser so that you can access it readily whenever you want to make a note.

I suggest you get started on building this competency and adding it to your repertoire sooner rather than later. As always, please don’t hesitate to write if you need help or have a question, we’re here to help you succeed! Would love your comments on Tiddlywki, or on your own use of wiki technology at your organization below- regardless of platform .


Alex Santos
Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, alex@collabor8learning.com or via Twitter@collabor8alex.

Is it time you change your job title from Instructional Designer to Learning Coach?

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We've been writing plenty lately on some of the amazing social technology that is evolution-izing workplace learning and performance. Yet, in speaking with fellow ID's, it's clear to me that Instructional Designer is no longer an adequate title for us in the corporate world. In the Instructional Design competencies published by the International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction (ibstpi®), one of the design and development competencies reads:

  • Develop instructional materials (Essential)

Anyone else have an issue with this thinking? Here are my $.02. Is it essential for a designer to develop instructional materials that address real and identified gaps in performance, of course. But this statement limits design and development work to "push" instructional strategies. I'd like to see competencies without this limitation.

I believe a better competency for a designer to posses in this day and age is:

  • Develop instructional materials, systems, and guidelines for learning to flourish formally, informally, and socially

Or something to that effect. Today's designer needs to not only be able to push learning out to the organization, but to encourage, compel, and make it possible for others to pull the learning they need in order to perform. In this regard, the role of the designer is evolving into what I feel is more of a "learning coach". At times, yes, you are developing instructional materials. But at other times, you may be moderating a product forum for your organization where learners are exchanging product questions and answers across the globe- and you are ensuring their information exchange is accurate and focused, while tagging it for future reference by others in the organization. In this scenario, you are not developing instruction, but managing a virtual environment where learners can teach and learn from each other.

I believe the role if the instructional designer is dramatically changing, and as professionals we must adapt or perish. No longer is learning hierarchically trickling down through our organizations, it is happening everywhere. As bearers of the learning and performance torch, we must enable our learners to learn what they need to perform, wherever they are, and on whatever device they prefer to access it. Our adaptation should include a revision of the competencies that encompass the skill set expected from each and every one of us.

What do you think- Has the profession and our roles changed sufficiently to warrant a revision to the competencies of every instructional designer?  How is your role changing at your organization?


Alex Santos
Alex is a co-founder and Managing Member of Collabor8 Learning, LLC, an instructional design and performance management consultancy. His firm collaborates with organizations to enhance the way they develop  and train their people. To learn more about Collabor8 Learning, click here.

Alex can be reached at 786-512-1069, alex@collabor8learning.com or via Twitter@collabor8alex.