In this episode we explore how we, as Customer Educators tackle the source of the river of knowledge. How does one approach discovery and work with Subject Matter Experts to get the best material? Have a listen and we’ll explain our strategies.

Discovery depends on SMEs

There’s nothing worse than finding out that content is the blocker to building a Customer Education program. After all, instructional design relies on access to subject matter experts (SMEs).

Selective Focus Photo of Magnifying Glass

If you’re in a small organization or working on a brand-new product, chances are that you have nothing – Zip, Zero, Diddly Squat – to work with.  There’s no documentation, sparse notes, and very likely, an overworked Product Manager who’s way too busy to deal with you.

Using the traditional ADDIE content development process, the first thing you do before you design or develop content is an analysis phase. You collect existing knowledge and documentation, analyze performance gaps, and use all of it to inform your design. But that process won’t work for people working at startups or other organizations that move too fast for ADDIE.

In small organizations, knowledge usually isn’t documented thoroughly. It’s locked in the heads of busy people who are trying to do their day jobs. These are your product managers, your technical architects, your customer success managers. Getting them to document their knowledge or create training is like squeezing blood from a stone.

Become an investigative journalist

Dave’s alma mater, the University of Missouri, has one of the leading schools of journalism in the country. U Missouri professor Steve Weinberg calls investigative journalism:

Reporting, through one’s own initiative and work product, matters of importance to readers, viewers, or listener

Weinberg, Steve (1996). The Reporter’s Handbook: An Investigator’s Guide To Documents and Techniques. St. Martin’s Press.

In Customer Education, we are very much like reporters.  Our customers depend on us to understand this material, organize it, and present it in a sensible way.

Sometimes we also have to doggedly pursue the truth.  That’s our job.

In this episode, Adam also refers to an article by Melissa Milloway, who is a Learning Experience Design industry leader, called “Here’s How an Organization Loses Trust in its Own L&D Team.

The reasons she provides in her article are familiar. We often leave our stakeholders hanging. They ask us for something that isn’t really training. For example, they’ll say, “We want all our customers to know about this new feature.” Well, is that Customer Education? Is it marketing? Is that a comms plan?

Even if it’s not training, we owe our stakeholders due diligence. Instead of following up with them, we ignore the problem.

Another reason she provides is that we say yes to everything without doing our homework. As Customer Educators, we must be consultative, even with senior leadership and complex customers. If a customer’s exec sponsor comes to us and asks for two 4-hour trainings, which they’ll record for their new hires in the future, we might be doing them a disservice if we don’t push back. That might not be the right solution for their future new hires.

Finally, we may not get included upfront in a project. If we aren’t involved from day one, we end up missing requirements. We don’t identify the right stakeholders. We don’t ask the right questions or show up to the right meetings. So it’s essential for us to act like great consultants and investigative journalists — finding the right sources at the right time to tell the right story.

How to get SME time for discovery

Subject matter experts are usually overworked and stressed. They’re already overcommitted to doing their day jobs, so asking for more time and brainpower is tough. But it’s vital.

In Professional Services roles, this means asking people to step away from billable customer work. In Product Management roles, this means asking people to step away from the next big release.

They don’t always see value in working with you to design scalable documentation or education. It’s not in their job description, or it’s the least exciting part of their job.

Or, on the other hand, they might see it as their job. If you’re working with Customer Success Managers, they may consider training to be their job.

You have to convince your SMEs and stakeholders that this will take a load off them. This will benefit them in the future, and they shouldn’t feel threatened. It’s not going to take away the things they like about their job. It’s going to allow them to focus more in the future. And most importantly, it’s going to help the customer.

Like investigative journalists, we often can’t take “no” for an answer. When SMEs have information locked in their heads, it creates liability for the company. What happens if that person quits tomorrow?

Often, we have to build deep bonds of trust with our SMEs, acknowledge that they’re going out of their way to do the right thing for the customer, and quell their fears that we’re changing the nature of what they do in their jobs.

If all else fails, we have to escalate. If the issue is that they have serious deadlines, or are overworked, then leadership can get involved to have prioritization discussions. Often, there’s something that can shift if building educational programs is a key priority.

The discovery process

Like we mentioned earlier, using the ADDIE model won’t always get the job done at fast-moving companies.

Often we need to use more agile methods, like SAM (Successive Approximation Model) from Michael Allen or LLAMA (Like-Lot Agile Management Approach) from Megan Torrance. These methodologies focus on iteration.

In SAM, for example, you begin with a “Savvy Start” then start creating prototypes that will iterate into the final product. This allows you to test, learn, and iterate. As you work with SMEs, you’ll be able to validate what actually works (or doesn’t work) with internal and external customers.

Dave recommends following a process similar to “4-4-2” when working with SMEs, to get dedicated working time. You plan to spend:

  • 4 hours of information gathering
  • 4 hours of review and write-up
  • 2 hours of review

Wash, rinse, and repeat. This gives you a process that looks similar to the following:

  1. Identify your SMEs
  2. With each SME:
    1. Find a room, lock the door, and turn off distractions
    2. Take enough time to understand the subject matter – what’s the feature, who uses it, how do they use it, what are the challenges?
    3. Push boundaries, ask questions, draw pictures, get creative
  3. Write up a summary of what you discussed
  4. Review the summary with your SME (doesn’t need to take long!)

Doing this type of discovery and investigation with your SMEs will help with your “savvy start” before you begin prototyping or designing your course.

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