When SMEs aren’t omniscient superhumans, how can proper solutioning effort support and complement them in a project?

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The Beginning: The Story of ‘Dude’

Dude is a relatable kind of guy for most of us. We work hard at our ‘regular’ jobs … that’s enough challenges, curveballs and cranky customers to fill most days. When we get time, we may read some free stuff online. (Many of us go to LinkedIn simply because it’s such a neat ‘acceptable’ compromise between working and low-effort social media scrolling, bwhaha!)

Anyway, the busier we are, the rarer these pockets of free time; and the rarer the pockets of free time, the less clarity we have for how best to use them. Most of us aren’t going to think of sitting with heavy, dense, technical material about our field (so why would we spend out of pocket on subscriptions for these!). And to be fair, who can blame Dude, you, or me for being this way?

But then one day,

And ta-da! An SME is born. The training project begins with a content resource who is expected to play the role of an expert, but is likely also just another harried employee, taxed with this new, added expectation, and who has received precious little by way of briefing… Familiar?!

Challenges in the Role of SME

Now, L&D sets up the meeting and the way we’re all guilty of doing at some point, the SME just shows up for the meeting with barely any prep to provide a brief. And it’s likely that they’ve had no time to brush up on the specific topic to ensure that they’re up to date.

But let’s not scold them. Truthfully, how many of us keep on top of industry journals, whitepapers, surveys and reports as a way of professional life?

Maybe we’re used to not making the time. Or we don’t have access to such content. Maybe we’re just not in the habit of reading research, statistical analysis and authoritative commentaries of what’s happening in our domain. Or maybe our organization doesn’t really encourage or empower us to do this. Maybe we’re overworked and have no discretionary time. Maybe we don’t even think of such reading as being particularly important!

This is a common problem that cuts across professions. It is not even a ‘fixed’ problem that someone is necessarily always in one camp or the other: we may go through alternating phases of being informed and outdated.

Challenges for Instructional Design

When we look at instructional design theory, models, or processes,

  • Firstly, they all seem to gloss over solutioning. There is TNA and then directly the high-level design. (Identification of learning objectives may be shown as an interim step or clubbed with the TNA).
  • Secondly, the SME is invisible as a factor in the TNA. In reality, the SMEs play a big role in technical corporate trainings. They not only participate in the briefing; they also influence what should be taught and how.
  • Thirdly, there is also an unstated assumption underlying the process, that the SME is able to provide good content. But no process has an explicit checkpoint to validate this, let alone room for a workaround or deviation if this is not the case.

In a larger conversation, these are a few of the million reasons why theorists and practitioners need to collaborate better so that theory has more practical relevance and grounding, and less of arbitrarily assumed laboratory conditions.

As for practitioners, we cannot dodge this gap just because theory doesn’t address it! It is too rich with unmanifested potential. This unaddressed void is where the chaos is explored to find the complications and politics, the practical compromises and ramifications of any initiative… and that elusive ‘value’ of ‘value creation’!

In solutioning we deliberately explore the void to recognize the possibility of multiple ways forward and pick a certain way which is later reflected in the high-level design. It is too important and significant to remain an invisible, unacknowledged step. Before high-level design can define whether scenario-based practice with animated scenarios are necessary, some serious problem framing and solving happen in solutioning.

Today I want to explore what solutioning can do for this routine aspect of work life (i.e., the harried SME); and also, what opportunity there is for solutioning to create real value from even a content perspective.

Usually, we give this a wide margin, because we consider it beyond the role of an instructional designer to attempt to stand in for an appointed expert. And here’s the thing: a spectrum of engagement is possible. We don’t have to presume to substitute for the expert – I agree, we shouldn’t. But we can support the expert and help them, complement their knowledge and funnel more focused contributions to the project.

Assumptions, Expectations and Opportunities

An instructional designer who offers solutioning services should also have a lot of practice diving into uncharted territory of even fairly deep content. They are probably used to navigating a mass of complex information, even in a new domain, without being overwhelmed. There are strategies that they know to use to cope with that. An ID offering solutioning should know how to learn in order to map out the topography of the content relevant to the need; how to find reliable and robust sources of information online, gauge them for relevance and correct level of expertise, and build a reasonably good understanding, sufficient to sketch up a rough curriculum while factoring the kind of things they don’t know that are likely important, and what they do know but in insufficient depth or clarity.

… (IMO, solutioning really isn’t for the faint of heart or lovers of ‘tips and tricks’ and ‘quick hacks’!)

This expectation doesn’t come from an airy assumption of the ID as omniscient. Rather, it’s from the realization that we may have the luxury of time (frequently) that our SMEs may not. And that we are practiced in learning new subjects from a starting point of zero, to quickly scale up for a specific, limited purpose.

The harried staff who is cast in the role of an SME, is also the product of a process where they have undergone training that was developed in partnership with – oh look, another harried SME! Solutioning is when we have a chance to step in and to try to break that cycle.

What happens when people are short of time to learn or to reflect on their area of expertise? Does an SME really have space to say in the first few conversations of a training project, “I don’t know that, I need to study it further”? Very few companies will be cool with this!

So, the pressured staff may understandably end up…

  • Making unverifiable claims of expertise (“I just know it’s this way”, “You just realize after some practice”)
  • Being dictatorial to discourage questioning (“Just cover what I tell you to in the training!”)
  • Ignoring the conditions of validity of information (is it outdated, is it only true in certain circumstances, what happens in an imperfect, real-world setting?)
  • Ignoring trends and business intelligence that could guide the curriculum and enrich it

It may not always be possible for IDs (who are after all not the domain’s experts) to compensate for these aspects. But it’s not always impossible either. And that’s why solutioning is such fun and has scope for so much creative analysis… And why it is anything but formulaic!

I’m going to take the example of information security because that’s a compliance training topic that is so common and relevant to so many of us.

Solutioning in Action: Detailed Moments

From the last 12 years of working on infosec courses, let me highlight 3 things that really bother me! –

1. Literally not one SME I’ve interacted with has ever shared stats of what type/category of threats and breaches the organization has actually had to deal with. We are always forced to teach blindfolded with no idea of what problem we really have to solve. I’d also love to have an SME who takes seriously questions like “how should an employee formally report (X)” for events like superiors demanding their credentials or if they witness someone misusing their own.

… How important is it to have a way to address this?

Welp, Verizon’s DBIR 2021 report highlights that most breaches are due to social engineering and that abuse of privilege is the most common kind of breach. Several reports and sources explain that internal non-malevolent actions by employees are also a more common source of threat than hostile employees trying to do harm – and employees are linked to most threats. Is that all starting to build a richer picture of the threat landscape and what training should consider?

Even if an SME fails to paint this picture as part of the brief, in solutioning we can take the initiative to steer the conversation there. Doing so gives L&D an idea of how the SME is performing (and not just the vendor). They can judge in a timely way if their resource person needs to be supplemented or pushed to deliver more/better. Who knows, it could even set up L&D to proactively offer *gasp* suggestions with practical performance value to business functions!

2. We are given (and then we unquestioningly parrot) ridiculously outdated information with nary a challenge. For instance, in teaching how to recognize phishing attempts, we still teach learners mainly only to look for obvious spelling and grammar mistakes. In the cozy world of training, apparently phishing is primarily by people who haven’t yet stumbled across a spell check program or who can’t write proper English!

We need to pin down SMEs to give more reliable and up to date flags to look for in suspicious mails. Solutioning is an opportunity to highlight that the content is wildly outdated (and who knows, maybe even the actual protections the organization has in place). Supplementing this kind of outdated content with better stuff is, to put it technically, easy-peasy! And, of course, it is valuable to the organization.

Is it worth our time, though? Well, if we do our homework in solutioning analysis, it doesn’t take much time to realize that across industry reports, phishing and use of stolen credentials are the most common breach actions (a consistent trend for years now). In comparison, the threat posed by something like use of pen drives, external hard disks and CDs is negligible and much more easily guarded against.

“Don’t open phishing mails” and “Don’t use external hardware” will both be part of the infosec dos and don’ts/policy document given as input content. However, in genuine solutioning, we can (should!) realize that the weightage given to the two topics should vary in terms of length of explanation, emphasis, and number and range of practice exercises. This is an expert taking ownership of training design, or at least attempting to, rather than a sheep asking the SME to give them the curriculum.

3. In my final free giveaway, I want to touch on the psychology of risk-taking. Why do people who are not malicious still fail to comply with security measures? This is not my analysis, I’m simply going by what infosec experts have explained – namely, that they do it because infosec protocols are often seen as getting in the way of productivity, of Getting Sh… uh, I mean, work, Done.

Even if an expert didn’t distill that for us, could we not reflect on our own organizations and our individual behavior and ask the so-reasonable question, “what do we do if we need an exception from a policy?”. Do you want people guessing or granting informally negotiated favors, or do you want a clear approval process for managing such requirements? No content dump I’ve ever been given refers to this. I think it’s the job of the person coming up with the solution to ask such questions in the interests of keepin’ it real making the training relevant and practical. Do we need years of technical expertise to spot this opportunity? To even possibly highlight this as a vulnerability in the infosec program of an organization? Not really. And that’s more value solutioning can create which spills over far beyond a training program.

In my vehement, critical way I’m still something of an eternal optimist: I really think that if we take SMEs off the absurd pedestal we have them on now, we may actually be able to reposition them beside us as allies to create better training. For that, we need to step up during solutioning.

Solutioning is how training stops paying homage to Mediocrates.


Written by Mridula R., Principal Learning Consultant @ Learnnovators

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