Writing Operating Procedures: 5 Tips (plus 1) For Working With An SME

I got a surprise in teaching our first class on writing compliant operating procedures last week – The one topic that produced the most participant discussion was on how to work with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).  Everyone in the class agreed that SMEs are critically important in developing quality procedures, but everyone also seemed to have a war story about the problems of working with an SME.  With that in mind, here are five tips (plus one extra) for making the process of working with an SME go smoothly.

As background, many of us who write operating procedures, technical documents or classes are not experts on the specific topic we are working on. Our role is to draw on the knowledge and experience of experts and translate their information into understandable, clear language that non-experts can follow.  That is a skill in itself and some of the people I have met who do it well are part mind-reader/part therapist.  Here are some rules that can help.

  1. Show some respect.  Subject matter experts earned their reputation through hard work and dedication to their craft.  Writing a procedure may be another task for you, but it represents many years of work.
  • Respect the effort and attention the SME put into becoming an expert.
  • Respect his/her time. If the company is trying to develop written procedures or training, it is often because the SME is too busy to do it all. Don’t become one more drain on the SME’s time.
  • Respect the SME’s ownership of the material.   Make sure he or she gets credit for making the end result successful.

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2  Park your ego at the door.  Most SME’s understand what you are trying to accomplish, but that is not always the case.  Experts in one subject don’t always understand that they are not experts in every subject, like writing or capturing a process in simple, easy to communicate terms.  Feedback from an SME can be brutal; it can also be way off-base, especially when the SME wants to be comprehensive and you want to be concise.  Find a diplomatic way to establish that you both bring certain skills to the project and yours are instructional design, research, communication or any of the other myriad skills that go into good writing or training.

3 The SME may not be on board with the project. Part of this may be direct. The SME may not believe the project is necessary or experience with bad procedures or classes may have made the SME doubt the success of the effort.  Part may be subconscious.  Knowledge is power and the SME may feel that sharing that knowledge diminishes his or her power.  Often companies will begin a serious effort to upgrade procedures or training as the reigning SME reaches retirement.   Even if the SME welcomes retirement, if the project looks too much like an effort to replace him or her it can summon up a whole host of demons.  Be ready to diffuse difficult situations, establish a healthy, collaborative relationship and, unfortunately, recognize when a conflict can’t be fixed.

4  Have questions ready to guide the discussion  If you just ask the SME to describe the process, you will get what you deserve.  The SME may leave off steps, fail to differentiate between the most and least important steps or, in some cases, not even be conscious of some steps that are automatic to an expert.  Have questions ready that dig deeper.   For instance:

  • What part does a novice usually get wrong?
  • I don’t have your expertise on this; can you describe so that someone like me can understand it?
  • I feel like I am missing something important; can I read you what I put down and you tell me whether I got that right?

5  Drink from the fire hose.  The best thing about SMEs is their passion for the material.   If you find yourself working with the world’s expert on microbial causes of corrosion on low tensile metals,  get ready to be deluged with material.  If a one-page document is all you need for that section of a class, you are likely to get five textbooks, 17 articles and a two-hour conversation.  Roll with it.  Your SME wants you to share his/her excitement in this field of study.  If you ignore it, you are communicating that it is not that important and, if you do that, why should the SME help you?

One extra tip:  How many SMEs does it take to screw in a lightbulb? One, any more than that and they will never all agree on the right way to do it.  Try to limit the number of SMEs to one on the first draft.  You can get input from others on the final reviews.


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