The Thick End of the Wedge—Rapid Course Development with Subject Matter Experts

The Thick End of the Wedge—Rapid Course Development with Subject Matter Experts

Training moves knowledge and skills from those who can – Subject Matter Experts – to those to cannot – Learners.

The entire point of instructional design and training development is to move learners from the thin end of the knowledge and skills wedge—not knowing—to the thick end of the wedge—filled with knowledge and skills—as rapidly as possible.

We focus on what a person needs to know in order to be successful in role. We separate the hard kernels of knowledge from the chaff of distraction.

The role of a learning specialist is to help those who know—the subject matter experts—examine their expertise from the eyes of a novice. To bring to the surface those hard kernels of knowledge that the learner must master in order to be effective.

The role of a learning specialist is to help those who know—the subject matter experts (SMEs)—examine their expertise from the eyes of a novice. To bring to the surface those hard kernels of knowledge that the learner must know in order to be effective. To structure that knowledge so the learner moves most rapidly form the thin edge of the wedge to the thick.

One of the greatest challenges I face as I consult with businesses—many of them software companies—is that their SMEs are too busy. It’s understandable—growing software companies especially are pressed by market demands and investors to get to market and grow rapidly.

My industry uses ratios of how long it takes to develop a course. They range from 20:1 for a simple ILT to 150:1 and up for complex, bespoke interactive eLearning simulations. Many clients have a tough time understanding why the ratio is not 1:1: why does it take more than an hour to create an hour-long course?

I could go into the whole discussion about the value of training and education here and the impact on the bottom line a well-trained workforce has, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point is, how do we as learning specialists most rapidly extract and shape the SME knowledge so others in the company can benefit?

The fastest way I have found to extract the information from SMEs is through a highly structure interview process. If we think of the time taken to develop an hour-long eLearning course, the most expedient approach that can work is:

  1. Define the audience
  2. Find the best SME (not just the most knowledgeable, but the most communicative, the most responsive, the most embracing of the value of training).
  3. Gather and review topic-specific information such as documents, guides, videos.
  4. Prepare detailed and focused interview questions.
  5. Conduct a short SME interview, half hour or less, with the sole purpose of defining the outline.
  6. Use your skill as an instructional designer to shape the outline so it is appropriate for learning.
  7. Get that outline reviewed and approved.
  8. Schedule another meeting, about 60-90 minutes, with the SME. Go in with a PPT deck. One slide for each topic.
  9. Record the interview. Ask the SME ‘For this topic, what are the most important points someone new to this must know? Will find most difficult? Most counter-intuitive?’ Write those points in bullet point form.
  10. Use your skill as an Instructional Designer to refine that content using the recorded interview (SMEs love to talk about their subject, so they will have shared more detail than just the bullet points you captured.) Is there foundational knowledge required? Is there content missing? Is the sequence right? Where would demonstrations, activities, or knowledge checks be best placed? What visual aspects need to be improved?
  11. Get that deck reviewed and approved.
  12. Develop the assessment questions.
  13. Schedule a final meeting with the SME to have them walk through the deck and review the assessment. Ask them to present that deck as if they were in a classroom. Record them using the best quality audio equipment possible.
  14. If the audio is great or if this is intended for an internal audience, process the audio, sync it to the slides. If not, have the audio professionally re-recorded and then sync it.
  15. Get it reviewed and approved.
  16. Publish.

How long with this take? It depends on many factors including the nature of the inputs (quality of the source material, ease of extracting info from the SME, experience of the interviewer, availability of templates) and the quality of the outputs (animation, interactive elements, embedded demonstrations).

Experience tells me that an hour of eLearning on a moderately complex technical topic should take about 12 hours of development using this model.

Experience tells me that an hour of eLearning on a moderately complex technical topic should take about 12 hours of development using this model. Better quality inputs and lower quality outputs will reduce that time.

How much of this is SME time? 4-5 hours.

For a business not mature enough to understand the value of formal training and the instructional design overhead needed to quickly move staff from the thin to thick end of the wedge, ask them which is better? To use that 4-5 hours of valuable SME time to develop scalable, reusable material or use that same time to deliver ad hoc one-to-one deskside training or one-to-few workshops.

I am biased, but I know what my answer is.

Michael McGovern