Do You Really Need a SME to Develop Materials?

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    Celeste Lackay

    I have been supremely blessed in that I have been kept busy with design and development work this past year. My group of contacts is small, but they have been loyal. One of them referred me to a client who wants to become accredited and the referee assured me that she is so impressed with the materials that she had no qualms that I’d love it too.

    I have been given the training manual they have used in the past to convert into a learner guide and design assessment activities against. The client is an MBA graduated engineer and author of the manual was equally qualified, so I thought “this will be easy”. The quotation I gave was based on me just formatting the guide. Besides, both the author and the client have a strong and long experience of working in a field where “German precision” is the ultimate! How hard can it be?

    Skip to, 2 days in and I have already lost my rag! You would too when you see these little nuggets on page 1: What is the first activity you do during a working day at office? (Sometimes even on holidays)
    Very often, the answer is checking emails. If there is lot of emails, then these emails decide the activities of the day. What happens if there are no emails at all? Then we get depressed. We get an unimportant feelings’’.

    Or: Progressive elaboration means, when we start a project we have very less information about the project and as the project progress we gain more and more insight into the project. At the time of preparing a proposal for a project, we have very less information about the project. When we complete the estimation we have a better understanding. When we complete the design we gain further insights. During construction things get clearer. We call this process as progressive elaboration. Based on these additional insights plans can change.
    Or: A group related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and control not available from managing them individually.

    Enough to do my head in!

    Let me break down my understanding of the roles. Assessment designers and developers is/are responsible to help the trainer to define their course specifications, analyse the training needs, define the learning scope and objectives and decide on the format, as well as on the assessment method. This is all made easy if the designer is in the loop from the beginning, but let’s face it. This very seldom happens because the SME (read project manager, operations manager, human resources administrator) feels that they are better placed to teach others what they know.

    It is not understood (or budgeted for) that the SME must be relied on to communicate their knowledge, offer an outline of the subjects / concepts that they feel MUST be covered, and check the accuracy of the material provided by the ID team. Very seldom is the SME the designer, and with good cause! (See the examples included and highlighted above it you think I am wrong.)

    So in answer to the question in the subject line, NO, but it would help in certain cases, e.g. in healthcare. A relatively inexperienced training materials designer & developer might in some cases be more appropriate than an expert one, because he or she may have a better appreciation of a novice learner’s thin background and design a more detailed and explanatory course content. In other words, he or she can identify himself with new learners, which, depending on the level of the students, might be extremely useful.

    I am trying my damnedest to convince my client to give me carte blanche and do what I do best, but I suspect that I may not be successful because of the difference in their and my education and because they have already used this material and may just see this an attempt from my side to either just get my way or inflate project costs.

    The real problem is that learners may have a wonderful and enriching experience in the classroom because the trainer is experienced, knowledgeable and “a really good communicator”, but they leave with that same learner guide.

    What about manufacturing of standard products (iPods, Toyota Camry cars etc.)? We call these as operations. Project Portfolio management what will you do, if you have 5 Crores INR (Indian Rupees) (1 USD = 37 INR). If you have an answer, then the subsequent questions that will loom large in your mind can be: Is this really the impression you want to leave them with? Really?

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    Nigel Shipston

    Hi Celeste,
    In the ideal world, a developer who is an SME would be the answer. However, there are few SME’s who are qualified to develop learning materials. Apart from the principle behind adult training, I have found most SME’s have a tendency to forget their target market and deal with them on a much higher level, totally nullifying effective training. The LP developer should be able to take what the SME has and convert it into a workable effective tool for training. The SME’s part is to confirm the content, not to meddle in processes which you as the developer are implementing in order to get the message effectively across to the target market.

    Merely the examples you have quoted here are a clear indication that perhaps the author should stick to engineering. The grammar alone leaves me cold. As a developer, grammar and spelling are the first hint that something is amiss, and had I been subjected to this I most certainly would have immediately switched off. The impression would have said to me “If the grammar and/or spelling is not in place, just how much of the content can I rely on?”. Stick to your guns, and if they let you go with it, then well and good. If not, well, let them learn.

    Celeste Lackay

    Thank you Nigel. I agree that ideally the developer is an SME, but then that would put paid to the “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” maxim.

    I have been known to turn down projects for development where I feel that I cannot do justice to the subject. Although my research skills are good, I know that contextual knowledge (however broad or informally obtained) is important in ensuring correct flow, content and level of assessments. I will say “yes” to almost anything, but I also know that if I take on a project, I have ready access to a SME in my network.

    Unfortunately, this problem is too closely linked to the money clients are prepared to pay for materials…

    Fiona Cameron-Brown

    Materials development is complex and needs both pedagogical and SME input. SMEs often do not know how to disaggregate tasks/information in a way that is accessible to the learner. They do not understand adult learning and that materials that apply these principles may appear counter-intuitive. Then, business owners have even less appreciation of the time involved in writing and developing quality materials.

    Soul destroying and disheartening, Celeste. Sorry, man!

    Celeste Lackay

    Thank you for your valued input, Fiona. I couldn’t agree with you more. This is exactly why I strongly believe that the SETA’s / QAP’s must formalise the integral role the materials and learning programme developer has in the system through ongoing monitoring, evaluation and developmental support, like they do with training providers.

    I believe that we must put pressure on these bodies to accredit designers and developers and add us to a database. This will allow us to not only be recognised professionally (allowing us to actually charge rates that is commensurate with the responsibilities we shoulder), but it will also protect every learner on every course from any approved provider from unscrupulous developers and providers.

    I know that I’ve said this before, but I believe that the regional SETA offices should add the QA of materials purchased by the providers in their purview as part of their support to their constituent providers, and recommend developers in their area from the database for edits / development. This forces accountability and the ensuing competition between developers will only serve to hone our craft and skills. I see no downside!

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