Loving Those Conscious Competents!

Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting a pilot workshop I am developing on how to find the subject matter experts in your organization.  I learned a lot from a really great group of trainers and managers and the conversation kept circling back to “how do we work with them?”

I gave everyone a copy of my book which is really a starting point to answer that question. As I talk to people online and in person about it, there is a wealth of issues that arise. That is exactly why we have this blog, so we can continue the conversation on a  regular basis and learn from each other.

One of the attendees yesterday is a consultant who said he has conducted hundreds of subject matter expert interviews. His usual approach is to start collecting information by asking to speak with someone who has been working in the relevant field for five years. When his client says, “No, we want you to talk to so-and-so who has been here for 30 years” he tells them that so-and-so will be his second interview.

Why? Quite simply, this seasoned consultant long ago intuited that it was the person who is still learning a subject who knows how to explain it. He saves his interview with the veteran SME after he has mastered a basic comprehension of the subject.

This consultant has learned that – in the language of Working with SMEs – that it is the Conscious Competent who is the best interview subject for a trainer or instructional designer who needs to learn a subject from the ground up.

It is always great when I get confirmation that the basic concept of the book is sound.

Also, I am learning every day that people really need help working with SMEs and so several workshops and another book are in development to assist companies in this sometimes frustrating task.

As always, I look forward to your comments below.

Advice to Subject Matter Experts: Summing It Up

A Checklist of Best Practices for Working with Content Developers and Instructional Designers

Here it is, week five of this topic. Time to sum it up in three best practices.

When subject matter experts are working with content developers and designers for training, marketing, sales, promotion and public relations, what you know is the most important part of the process. It is the job of the content developer or instructional designer to assemble questions, propose an interview and review schedule, and ask you to fill in information gaps.

However, you can have some control of the process itself from your end to help the content developer/writer/instructional designer/trainer to capture your knowledge.

Control can be a wonderful thing. Here are a few tips to make sure you have some leverage on the process.

  1. Flow of Information – Feel free to correct and amend? If the steps or flow of the information that the writer has outlined for you do not make sense to you, put them in a logical sequence for them. Nobody understands the context of the material better than you, and that includes the developer.
  2. Schedule – Be in control of the schedule from your end. If you are working with someone who has difficult meeting their end of the deal, say so and escalate it if you have to.
  3. Content – Ultimately, it is your content. If it is right or wrong, you are the final authority. Check, correct and approve.

You are in the role of a subject matter expert because you are 100% focused on your skill, ability, craft and knowledge. That is the great thing that makes you valuable. Without you, we’d be writing about…



Advice to Subject Matter Experts, Part II

Tips for Working with Your Content Developer

Note: While this blog specifically addresses working with instructional designers, this applies to subject matter experts who work with writers and content developers for any purpose – marketing, sales, you-name-it.

Last week, we discussed a few ways you can prepare your instructional designer or writer for creating materials in your area of expertise before you start the writing process. This week, let’s discuss a few good practices to keep the process on track.

While it is an instructional designer’s job – or his manager’s job – to assemble questions, propose an interview and review schedule that process may not always happen flawlessly. Even if it does, it helps for you to be aware that you can make contributions to the successful completion of a training program by keeping a few simple rules in mind.

Tips for Working with Your Training Designer

  1. Organization of the Material – If there are steps or a process to your information, put them in a logical sequence. Nobody understands the context of the material better than you and that includes the ID.
  2. Timeliness – Be available for interviews and do reviews on time.
  3. Scheduling Conflicts – Anticipate and avoid scheduling conflicts. This seems obvious, but you will find that sometimes your regular work may directly conflict with meeting your SME obligation. If you are in a job where this can occur, plan for this contingency. For example, ask the ID if you can work ahead on your deadline for your review, comments and sign-offs. The ID, and probably also a graphic designer, computer programmer, project manager and an editor – at the very least – have their work scheduled around your deadline, too. Time is money all the way around.
  4. Accuracy – Provide the information requested and double-check to make sure it is correct when you get drafts of the program (and yes, you may receive more than one!). This seems simple enough and may even seem insulting to mention, but it wouldn’t be here if failure to check information didn’t happen.
  5. Sign-Offs – Sign off at pre-agreed checkpoints, and make sure you have checked the accuracy of the information when you do. If you are working with a contract ID from outside your company, there is probably a contract in place between the training organization and your company that makes your company responsible for content after you affix your signature to it. It will cost your company if a project goes into overruns for corrections at which time you will meet the infamous Scope Creep.
  6. Blind Spots – We all have them. Frequently, we develop blind spots as a result of our success; failures are more likely to call us up short and require us to be careful and thorough. Because you are the SME, let’s assume you’ve met with a lot of success in your life, and that makes you vulnerable to blind spots. Think through the eyes of a novice when you are explaining details to your ID. It is obvious to you to click “enter” after an entry, but it may not be so obvious to the new kid.


What are some other best practices you have found for working with content developers?


Where is Your SME on the Continuum of Knowledge?

Today I am posting an excerpt From Working With SMEs. Can you relate to this concept?

Ideally, your SME is on the third level of the four stages of learning continuum and is a Conscious Competent.


When your SME is a Conscious Competent, that means she is aware of what she knows, and she is able to tell you. Since such a SME is still on the learning curve herself, not having reached the state where her knowledge is unconscious, she is closer to her own training and remembers what it is like to be a naïve learner. By remembering what it is like to not know, the SME will better remember how she acquired the knowledge or skill that is the subject of your training program, and by extension, how to explain it in a linear way to you.

Briefly, here is how a SME at each level of competence will affect your information gathering process:

Unconscious Competent: When you are gifted with a SME who has risen to career heights in a specialized field and can still explain what she knows, you have truly unearthed a gem. You will both find the tools in this book helpful to organize that a lifetime of knowledge into small, digestible, relevant chunks for you and your learners. Simply, she is such a vast repository of information that she really does not know how much she knows and how well she knows it. It is your job to unearth the gems and help her break it down into simple steps.

Conscious Competent: When you have been given the bright, up-and-coming SME who is still ascending the ladder of knowledge, these tools will help you focus on the important pieces of information that you need to assemble for your learners and identify the additional resources to fill in gaps as they arise.

Conscious Incompetent: When you are faced with a SME who lacks the needed knowledge, we have some tips in the next chapter for that situation. Our recommendation, though, is that you search to find a Conscious Competent SME. It will save you time and effort in the short and long run.

Unconscious Incompetent: It happens. You can be given a know-nothing SME. This is the worst of all possible worlds. The book discusses how to deal with this situation, as well.

What has been your experience working with subject matter experts?



More Differences Between Coaching Entrepreneurs and Corporate Executives

Last week, we explored some of the unique challenges faced by entrepreneurs. Corporate executives and entrepreneurs share some business imperatives as leaders in their organizations. However, they vary in the way they approach thinking about their businesses and the degree of control they have in operating them.

Corporate executives may have several layers between themselves and the owners. An entrepreneur is the owner often along with some very interested investors who may take close interest in the everyday functioning of the operation.

Last week, a friend and retired CEO who now advises entrepreneurs as part of his ongoing business interests, wrote a note to me and added to the list of issues that an entrepreneur needs to think about when building their business.

Here are more things that the new entrepreneur needs to consider. Most of these things are important to all businesses, but they are critical, do-or-die imperatives in a startup and all within the control of the entrepreneur.

  1. Build structure, not a bureaucracy. Know the difference.
  2. Cash is king, not profitability.
  3. Don’t give away product enhancements. Adjust your price as they are introduced.
  4. Understand your competition before getting started.
  5. Be thorough in establishing your initial price. It’s tough to raise a price, particularly in the startup phase.
  6. Don’t get distracted by outside requests or activities. Your future depends on your new company, not outside events.

When reading through this list, how many of these mistakes do you think a new business will make? Having been involved in a few startups, I have seen a few of these violated without good outcomes.

Which one do you think is most important? Perhaps the most deadly mistake is not realizing that cash is the lifeblood of your organization. Without it, you can’t survive.

As for the others, after you’ve survived, you need to optimize your business’s potential through maximizing operational efficiency, market positioning and pricing by paying attention to the other items on this list. The future health of your new business depends on getting all these things right.

Jonathan Milligan’s Blogging Your Passion: Publish Your Expert Message Online

Meet author and blogging expert Jonathan Milligan. Jonathan recently published a book, 15 Traits of Successful Pro Bloggers. In it, he creates a step-by-step path to establishing a successful online business based on blogging about what you love. He calls it “Blogging Your Passion.”  Jonathan also has started Blogging Your Passion University (BYPU) where he personally leads you on the journey to turning your life’s passion into your life’s work by building an online business.

Jonathan is a teacher by training and at heart. He makes the journey fun, and his students come away with a workable plan. Jonathan is the Lewis and Clark of the online blogging business! He’s gone where few have traveled, he’s cut some new trails, and he drew the map. His 15 Success Traits of Pro Bloggers pyramid is below the video where you can follow along as he describes it. Also, pick up his book featured on Amazon on the right side of this page to learn his whole system in detail.

If you are an expert in something (psssst…we are all experts in something!), and you’ve considered blogging about it, you’ve come to the right place. Enjoy this interview with Jonathan where he generously shares some great information with us.

CLICK HERE for Jonathan Milligan’s Blogging Success Pyramid PDF

Do you have something you’re passionate about and would love to start a blog sharing it with the world? Are you a blogger now and have hit a plateau? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

Make the Most of Your F2F Time with Your SME

This post is one in a series that answers questions from viewers of the January 28 KnowledgeVision Google Hangout where we talked about the challenges of working with SMEs.

Question from Sarah, Part 2:

Do you have a set of questions that you use for most information-gathering sessions?

We talked about the value of having some standard opening questions and a standard last question in last week’s post. This week we will explore ways to make the most of your face-to-face time to ask questions that take the best advantage of the personal interview.

My best example is my current project. I am in the final stages of writing a book for a retired CEO who has taught leadership classes. I have loads of class notes and material, but the value of our weekly two-hour interviews is that we are uncovering the kind of detail that wouldn’t make it into his class notes. During our talks, he mentions extra materials from classes and seminars he has taught that helps the book tremendously. When you familiarize yourself with information before the interview, the interviews really are for, what journalists call, color.

In face-to-face interviews you get a sense of context and the “why” behind certain facts or recommended courses of action. It is one level of detail to say, “Involve your employees in customer contact”. It is another level of impact to tell a story about the time he took an employee off the manufacturing line along on a  business trip to Turkey, the results it won for the customer and the employee’s improved attitude toward his job.

I am always learning something new about how to improve the process. With this particular subject matter expert, I record all our sessions, something I recommend for all your SME interviews. What I learned from this encounter is that he says something useful as he walks in the door and then may throw out another important fact as he leaves. I have learned to click on the record button the minute I see him and I don’t click stop until he is gone. When you are working with someone who is colorful and constantly throwing out gems of information, catch every little bit. Many of your high-level (unconscious competent) SMEs will fit into this niche.

As one last little tidbit, some of his commentary is so impactful that we may use some of the audio from the interview sessions in the materials as links to mp3s. When you are dealing with a charismatic leader or person with some significance, you don’t want to lose anything. Their own words are often the very best, so capture and use audio and video whenever possible so your expert can connect directly with the learner.

Standard Questions to Ask Your Subject Matter Experts

This post is one in a series that answers questions from viewers of the January 28 KnowledgeVision Google Hangout where we talked about the challenges of working with SMEs.

Question from Sarah:

Do you have a set of questions you use for most information-gathering sessions?

Yes. I have standard set of opening and closing questions leftover from my reporter days, and they are good ones when you are gathering info for a training program too.

For the standard first question, check their name, spelling, title, division, business unit, contact info just to make sure those things are correct. It seems like a simple thing, but it is good to have it. If you are an internal to the organization, you will probably have those things at your fingertips, but if you are an outside training organization, you want to double check your information with your client. More than once, a person’s job title changed from the time a training project started and to the time it was completed.

For the standard last question,  ask them what you didn’t ask them. For example, say, “Is there anything else you can think of that I didn’t ask you that is important for the learner to know? What would you like the learner to know that we haven’t covered?” This is a good question because you may find out that their mind goes somewhere else completely on the matter, and you can pick up some good information with that last question. Assume you don’t know what you don’t know.

As for the messy middle, if I don’t know the topic or the person, I will ask for materials to study before I meet with them. Ask for  journal articles, checklists, slide presentations and, any material they may have in their files to give you some grounding in the topic. And then, I develop a set of questions out of those materials.

Preparation can make the interview process go more quickly and smoothly than if you enter an informational session with your subject matter expert without doing your homework first.


Preparing You and Your SME for an Interview

This post is one in a series that answers questions from viewers of the January 28 KnowledgeVision Google Hangout where we talked about the challenges of working with SMEs.

Question from Sarah:

Do you send SME’s pre-work or questions ahead of time or prefer to wait until you meet face-to-face? Best practices for this would be helpful.

Yes, if you think that your subject matter expert may need to assemble some materials for you or in any way prepare something to give you, you can send them an outline of your interview in advance. Usually, when a SME is asked to participate in a learning program they already understand their focus. However, you can send them questions before you meet with them is you want them to think about a specific topic in some detail, but it isn’t usually necessary.

If you need your SME to provide content for a system or process you’ve already outlined, it helps to provide that in advance so they can think about how their material is best presented in that format.

On the other hand, if I anticipate that the subject is difficult or complex, I ask for pre-work from the SME so I can prepare.

  • Do they have articles or books that they’ve written that they can provide to you for background?
  • Do they have best practices that they’ve codified and can give you with a template, list or system?
  • Have they given a speech on the topic and have a slide presentation that would be helpful?
  • Are there newspaper or journal articles written about them or their topic?

Ask them if they have those types of background materials because when you’ve done a little advance homework, you are more able to be focused in your questioning.

Essentially, anything that you can do to prepare both yourself and your SME for an in-depth interview session will help you both have a more productive session.

Join Us! Eight Different Types of SMEs and How to Work with Them: Webinar and Article

On Wednesday, January 28, KnowledgeVision is sponsoring a Google Hangout where we will discuss the eight types of SMEs and how to work with them. You can still register here.

The book Working with SMEs identifies characteristics that you may encounter when working with subject matter experts and gives you some tactics for overcoming these behaviors. The webinar and article that you will receive when you register discusses these issues taken from the book. In advance of our Google Hangout tomorrow, you can view a presentation on the eight types of SMEs here.

The eight types of subject matter experts we discuss are:
1. Speedy SME – impatient and tries to control the pace of the session
2. Scattered SME – does non think sequentially and believes their knowledge is too complex to be captured in steps
3. Shortcut SME – been doing their job so long they use shortcuts a novice could never follow and is not best practice for the organization
4. Defensive SME – feels their job is threatened if they tell you anything
5. Not-Quite-Expert SME – doesn’t really know best practice, or thinks they do not know it
6. Overcommitted SME – consistently misses or is late for appointments because they are overburdened
7. Interrupted SME – on the phone, email or other interruptions during your interview sessions
8. Reckless SME – doesn’t review the draft carefully

To learn more, you are invited to join us for a Google Hangout at 1 p.m Eastern.

KnowledgeVision has developed applications for capturing the knowledge of experts in an easy-to-use platform. Find out more here.

I look forward to hanging out with you tomorrow!