A while ago, I came across a blog post from Clive Shepard titled, Do instructional designers need to know about what they are designing?

I was eager to dive into Clive’s blog and finally get some clarity on this issue. Instead, what I read was a classic pro-con argument for both positions, but with only “I’m undecided” for a conclusion. A bit deflated, I shared the article with our team, asking others to comment. What I got was a more satisfying answer, one that illustrates how we typically work with our clients. Here’s what one of our instructional designers posted:

“I think the strongest learning engagements happen when the subject matter expert and the instructional designer are really partners in the development of the project. If I as a designer feel comfortable learning from the SME, returning to them with questions, and remaining open to their suggestions, I think the odds of the project being successful rise dramatically. Partners who have mutual respect for each other’s expertise build very cool things.” — by Cim Kearns

Cim captures, for me, the essence of our approach to clients. We recognize the expertise you bring to the relationship. You know your business. You know your people. You’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. You understand what you know. And we meet you there, bringing to bear our expertise in teasing out the unknowns, asking questions, probing for ways to connect and partner on the solution that best addresses the business need.

Here’s an example of a recent project where our client brought their expertise and allowed us to fill in the gaps.

We worked with a client in the dental industry that was implementing a major new system change. Other than individually visiting the dentist when needed, our team didn’t know much about this business. However, we do know how to design training, especially when a complete system change is involved. We understand that training under these circumstances is about more than just showing someone how to do something, it is about preparing the groundwork for the change, respecting people’s need to see the benefits of the change and not fear it.

Our client got that part too, and had taken steps to begin the change process themselves. Instead of wasting time questioning their ability to handle this aspect, we respected what they’d learned from it, and avoided undermining it in what we designed. We asked our client to consult on the background of the system, and they trusted us to design a strategy and supporting content to assure learning retention and skill acquisition. We learned a lot about and with each other along the way. The result was not only a great success for the training, but a strong partnership and respect for each other.

So, in the end, I agree with Cim. When we partner with clients and respect their knowledge and expertise, meeting them at that point and along the way learning things we never would have known otherwise, magic can happen. Ultimately, then, I’m not undecided. I believe it doesn’t matter if we know about the subject we are designing. The question is—are we willing to learn, to partner with those that do, and to create great things together?

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