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When SMEs Know Best: A Case Study of Instructional Design/SME Collaboration

When a technical expert approaches me to ask for help in putting together a presentation, I consider it one of the highest forms of a compliment I can receive.  Last week, I received such a compliment, and the result can be viewed as a model for instructional designer/SME collaboration.

The Context

A colleague had been asked to deliver a short presentation about her team’s work during a monthly all-staff meeting.  When this colleague approached me, she knew specifically what she wanted to accomplish and had some ideas about the scope and flow of the presentation and she shared the initial draft of her slide deck.

Contracting with the SME

Before jumping in and providing my “expert” advice, I asked her for the type of help she was looking for.  When she suggested she was looking for general design and presentation tips I asked her about her comfort level for inviting audience participation and I asked if I could spend some time playing around with her slides.

I’ve learned through experience that as an instructional designer, I cannot design a lesson for someone else if they are not comfortable delivering it.  When I’m asked for feedback or to help design a presentation, I need to meet the SME where he or she is (ok, maybe I’ll push the envelope a little bit, but push too much and the result can be a disaster).

A Few Tweeks

For the most part, my colleague had a solid design already.  One area I was able to assist with was in the re-design and simplification of her PowerPoint slides.  I made the observation that she had created a slide deck that would make a good, informative handout.  However, if she removed most of her text to capture only her key points, she would have a more powerful visual aid for her presentation.  I also suggested that she quiz our staff on whether they could name the layers of the cornea instead of beginning the presentation with a short anatomy lecture.  Since we work in an eye bank, this should be a fairly quick activity, but it would be a way to immediately involve the audience and keep them on their toes.

Original Slide (for lecture)
Original Slide (for lecture)
Re-designed (for Pop Quiz)
Re-designed (for Pop Quiz)
Layer-by-layer animated reveal when correct answers were given to the "Name the layers of the cornea" Pop Quiz activity
Layer-by-layer animated reveal when correct answers were given to the “Name the layers of the cornea” Pop Quiz activity

By the end of this short, pop quiz on cornea anatomy, even our non-technical staff and executives were proving their eye banking bona fides by showing off their knowledge and calling out the layers of the cornea.

Not Assuming I Know Best

According to the original slides, the design of this session was supposed to revolve around a lecture on various ways that corneal tissue can be processed in our lab through a variety of tissue cutting techniques.  In an effort to encourage more interaction and engagement, I suggested that my colleague give everyone a piece of paper and a pair of scissors and then she should lead the entire staff through a simulation of how corneas can be cut.  My colleague felt that there was not enough time to do this and did not adopt this suggestion.  Instead, she and her team used a variety of models and props to demonstrate various tissue cutting procedures.  As I watched on, I felt it was a brilliant move – who wouldn’t be engaged by watching their colleague using salad tongs and tissue paper to simulate a complex and advanced surgical technique?!

While some of the things my colleague and her team ended up doing were not anything I would have suggested, the truth of the matter is that the design they ultimately chose worked very well for them as facilitators (in fact, it probably worked much better than if they had taken all of my suggestions) and worked well for us as an audience at the all-staff meeting.  And that’s the point of SME/instructional designer collaboration – to find the right mix of a presenter’s comfort level, facilitation skill and training design.

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