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SMEs and the Art of Motivation Maintenance: A Cautionary Tale

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Imagine this: You’re about to walk into a week-long review of a face-to-face course you’ve been developing. At this point, your content should be solid and you should be feeling great. But you aren’t. The course started off fairly strong, but politicking caused a two-week work stoppage while you had to defend the course direction. During that time, SME motivation dropped to 0. Their writing, which was never stellar, has gotten worse and worse. In spite of prompts, questions, suggestions, and resources, they’ve lost the story line of the course and everything they’ve turned in has required massive amounts of revision just to make it readable. You’ve even resorted to writing sizable bits of content yourself. All this just to make it to the review, where the content is modified, modules are moved around, and while the feedback is good, you notice that your SMEs have mentally checked out and motivation seems to now be in the negative numbers.

Quick: What do you do?

When you find out, will you let me know?


That was my week last week. And with the course still under development, that will still be me for the next couple of months. I know that this, too shall pass, but when I’m faced with a full-scale disaster like this one, I can’t help but wrack my brain to try and consider what I could do better? How can I fix it? The trouble is, with this situation, I’m not sure I have the answers. Still, by analyzing the situation, maybe I’ll come to some.

Problem One: Content Quantity

So, to begin with, the SMEs seemed really motivated. I did everything I could to give them clear directions. We created objectives, we outlined the content, we debated the flow. Everything seemed good; everyone seemed to be on board with the vision. And they were. The problem was that the writing I was getting was very high-level, very summary. And while that may work for other types of content, this particular course goes through multiple levels of review and the bare bones I got needed much more meat.

My response was to go through the content and add a ton (a by that I mean a ton) of comments. Can you walk me through x process? What sorts of challenges might a participant face when trying to implement z? Can you define y? Questions, everywhere. I would get back the next iteration and nothing was different. Nothing was better. They wrote in broad stokes and I wanted details.

After watching a bit more in last weeks meeting, I heard one of the SMEs ask a few questions about how long the content should be and what type. It seems like, perhaps, I wasn’t doing a good job of tailoring my style. It seems like what he needed was specific directions like: write one page of content on x subtopic; then, write half a page on y subtopic.

I’m not used to giving instructions in that way. In fact, as an English major, I’ve never even seen instructions like that. The expectation has always been that you write enough to cover what you need to say. If feedback asked for details, you provided details. That didn’t seem to work with these SMEs.


Perhaps one thing I should have done earlier was take the content that I was given initially and have the project manager look over it. Perhaps that would have prompted a better explanation of expectations from the guy writing their check.

The other thing that I might need to start doing is to ask what they need; what type of feedback would help. I’m not 100% sure that it would have helped. They probably would have said that comments would be fine. But maybe by asking I could have opened the space for them to tell me what they needed to know to give me what I needed.

Problem Two: Content Quality

Like I said, even the beginning content was not strong in the way that it has been in other courses. Don’t get me wrong, every course I work on requires some initial revision: reordering paragraphs, working on flow, asking questions. That’s a given, but typically, as the iterations continue, revision ceases and editing smaller things, grammar and punctuation, takes its place, until everyone is satisfied. But that never happened in this case. And then, once we had to defend the course outline, they seemed to flip out. They took it very personally that the work we had done had been questioned. I don’t; but then again, I’m used to it. Questioning my own work, having my work questioned is a critical part of my design job (not in a micro-managing way, mind you; I consider it part of the design process). After that, motivation plummeted. They still (mostly) kept deadlines, but the work was poorer and poorer. It became even more summary. In some cases, my numerous questions were addressed with a sentence addition or not at all. So in many cases, I’ve begun writing the content myself. I wouldn’t normally consider this a problem because, normally, content I write consists of segues and introductions to enhance overall flow. But in this course, I’ve had to write about some technical things that I’m not an expert on. Sure, I use the resources I have available, but the whole reason we bring in SMEs in the first place is to get the perspective of and have the benefit of someone with decades of experience. Someone who can get the details right. So, in this instance, it’s a problem.


I had no control over the politics and relationships involved in this course. I had no control over the personalities involved, beyond trying to build consensus (and keep everyone on track) during our face-to-face meetings. It’s tough, then to think about how I could have re-motivated the SMEs to give me their best. Maybe this one is beyond me.

I don’t write this to complain. I really did ask myself, what more can I offer them? What else can I do? You win some and you lose some, I guess. Anyone got any suggestions?



  1. K@FH
    August 19, 2016 - Reply

    Hi Kristin, You don’t mention anything about Context, and I wonder if the answer might lie here. For example, when motivation drops to 0 following a perceived challenge to the quality of their work, their response may have more to do with something that happened in the past, or their relationship with the reviewers. What strategies did you try, following this post? Any success?

    • August 19, 2016

      Howdy, absolutely context played a role in that they didn’t like the fact that their work was being reviewed so late in the game and even further, there was an idea thrown out to bring another writer on board. All of that is context, and I had control over none of it.

      All I could do from my position was to continue to try and get work out of the SMEs, and perhaps more importantly for a newbie, continue to communicate the issues with my boss and the project manager. As even more of a newbie at the time (this was my first ID job) my takeaway was to try and fix what I could about what I was doing, but there came a point where it was above my pay grade and beyond my power so I just had to communicate, communicate, communicate.

  2. March 1, 2017 - Reply

    I’m always surprised at what looks like an antagonism between IDs and SMEs. Being nearer from the people you describe I can feel their pain to write, and write and write more. When motivation is low it becomes an even bigger problem. Pressure on writing paycheck can’t help IMHO..

    Since this post is now a bit old it would be interesting to know how you eventually solved it. I’m thinking how a bot could have helped in the process. What would you place in this bot?

    • March 1, 2017

      I actually left that post before this work was completed, so the problem was not really solved. I’d say at this point, environment and motivation were two big factors and again, even from this distance, I don’t know how much more I could have done beyond continuing to communicate and trying to fix my approach. But many of the issues weren’t mine to grapple with.

      How could a bot have contributed? The only way I could think of would be a bot that nudged completion of all parties towards the end goal. So didn’t meet your writing goal for today, get a nudge from the bot to report what you finished. Got a document awaiting your comments and review, get a nudge from the bot. Not sure that would have helped solve the root issues, but it would have automated some tasks.

    • March 2, 2017

      Fine enough, sometimes we have to let go and look for more auspicious horizons. I’m still wondering on alternatives to extract nuggets of knowledge from knowers and share them forward. Working on it in fact.

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