Collaborating with an expert panel: the uncut version

In this post, I’m going to take a look behind the scenes and scrutinise the process of consultation and collaboration that takes place between me and my specialist nurse subject experts. I want to do this because this is the part of my work that no-one sees and I hope that, by making it visible, I might have something of value to pass on to others who are working in the same way.

woman activating social network/team I’ve managed a number of complex projects over recent years that have required the input of specialist expert panels. Members of the panel often know each other professionally, although they may be in different parts of the country (or world). My role is to involve the panel in the design and development of the materials and to tap their expertise to ensure that learning materials are addressing the real-world concerns of our target audience of learners. I manage the consultation by phone or skype with some small-group teleconferences.

Collaboration can be difficult – otherwise it would happen more often – and what works in one setting will not always apply to another. Sometimes people want to be closely involved, other times they want to be ‘hands-off’. Knowing how much or how little to keep people in the loop can be a hard judgement call.

The text book notion of collaboration is that a group of people meet up, agree their common goals and package out the work – pooling skills, sparking off each other and pulling together in the same direction. Wrong! At least, not the whole story: collaboration can be a messy, frustrating and confusing process. It can also be inspiring and creative. Either way, it’s the only way to work if you want to create learning materials that are going to reflect the real world of professional practice.

The elearning project that is my bread and butter is likely to be low in the priority list in the overall workload of my subject experts. I need to put in a lot of effort to make my work and deadlines a priority to others. In my experience, involving busy professionals in a process of collaboration to produce elearning content is a process of diplomacy that involves:

  • managing my own anxiety – however experienced, anxiety is always a factor at the beginning of a project. I’ve come to expect it as part of the creative process.
  • managing other people’s expectations – this is the wet blanket part: I have to be quite firm about what is – and is not – possible within the constraints of budget and time.
  • managing time – mine and others’. This means trying not to get so caught up in my own schedule that I can’t see the pressures others are under.
  • humility – being willing to ditch a first attempt if it doesn’t cut the mustard – even if I’ve invested time and effort into it.
  • showing empathy – staying aware of what is going on for other people on the group. This is just one part of their workload and, even if paid for being involved, people are comfortable with different levels of participation.
  • staying open to new ideas – it’s tempting to try to replicate things that have worked before or sticking with an idea because it seems right to me.
  • being honest – being willing to say I don’t understand. If I am confused, the learner doesn’t have a chance. I may need to ask tough questions, which often means challenging cherished ideas – those ‘taken-for-granted’ notions that hold sway in every profession.

5 stages of an elearning project

Every project is different but I find they share a similar process. I’d be interested to know if others recognise thesestages  from their own work.

Stage 1 Coping with chaos

At the start of a large project I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and the topic area. I feel uninformed and ignorant. The experts use jargon or technical words that I don’t understand – or make references to important research or legislation that everyone in their field knows but I have never heard of. I’ve learned to breathe deeply and accept this anxiety is ok – even inevitable. They are the experts and I am not. My expertise lies in organising and writing the learning content. I’m working with people who have spent their working lives on the topic. But even after all these years, I can still get tripped up at this stage and feel self-doubt and that I am out of my depth. Living with these feelings has been the hardest lesson. The temptation is to go away and do masses of web research so that I can be knowledgeable next time I talk. That’s ok, but not a substitute for having discussions with the experts who will immediately focus on the most pressing issues facing practitioners. I’ve learned too that it’s important to check these out with the rest of the group as each expert has their own perspective. At this stage, I am juggling two things: identifying themes and content, whilst managing subject expert expectations of the final product. As we talk, I feel I am shaping the direction with constant reference to the design brief. If it’s all getting too big then I remind the panel of the learning outcomes. If I’m losing track of where it’s all going, I go back to basic questions. What do you want people to be able to do? Why aren’t they doing it now? What are the real barriers from your own experience? What’s working well and where?

Stage 2 Patterns emerge

After a series of conversations with individual experts or small groups, patterns begin to emerge. On a practical note, I always try to make sure we have uninterrupted time for these important initial conversations. I email ahead to request an appointment with an estimate of how long the call will take. When I ring, I check that the person still has time available as many are in busy clinics or important meetings have to take priority. Even though it is frustrating I have to be prepared to reschedule; it’s better to have a conversation where the other person is able to focus than talk to someone whose mind is elsewhere. I follow up every call with an email summary of what was discussed and copy it to the rest of the group. Key elements of the brief can shift subtly as I speak to each person and it’s important that everyone has the opportunity to see that this has been discussed and agreed and that it is not just my author’s whim. I use a clear agenda of questions that relate back to the first brief for the project but I let the conversation diverge and move onto other topics. This allows for other concerns or issues to be aired that are sometimes critical to the topic. If an important point is raised by one person, I check it with the next person I talk to. Sometimes it’s confirmed, sometimes it’s challenged. Gradually I start to understand the key debates, where the controversy lies and what camps of opinion there are. I start to get an idea of how each person can make a contribution to the development of the learning materials. Some people are great at coming up with case studies and scenarios, others need to see something in print before they can comment. Some can access resources that will be useful for the project, such as a medical photographer or existing learning materials that can be repurposed.

Stage 3 The design brief changes

After talking to everyone there are often changes to be made to the original brief. This is a good time for a group email to thank everyone for their participation so far and to summarise how the focus of the brief has now shifted in the light of their insights. This project is just one small part of their workload and the email serves to remind them of the project – particularly if they have promised to send on information or resources. At this stage I have also carried out my own research, based on leads and hints from the subject experts. I will not start writing until we have had these conversations and the changed brief has been shared and agreed.

Stage 4 We buckle down and do the work

At this stage, it is usually down to me to decide how to:

  • select and organise the content
  • create learning activities that will meet learning outcomes
  • share ideas for scenarios, videos and any supporting resources.

Sometimes we will use an authoring tool like Articulate Storyline and I may work with other freelancers to bring in extra skills for graphic design and development. Occasionally a member of the panel will want to be involved in writing case studies and scenarios, in which case I will take on an editing role. More usually, the subject experts prefer to leave me to do the writing and to be contacted for specific practice examples, to check concepts and add to handouts. I’ve written about this in an earlier post where I describe this process as ‘panning for gold’.  I’ve learned that sharing early results saves time, even if it is just an outline of a scenario or a mock-up of how a learning unit might look. If I have misunderstood anything fundamental it is easier to change direction at an early stage. It takes some discipline to do this, rather than send out something polished, but it saves time in the long run. With an enthusiastic panel of experts, there is the danger of ‘project creep’ at this stage – when people are really engaged, the project can start to get bigger. I project manage closely, giving everyone deadlines and keeping to them, even if others are not able to. With a panel that is less engaged, the challenge is to keep them interested. I try to do this by sending out requests for information and input that provokes some dialogue and debate within the group – quite often around those key debates that I have already identified in stage 2.

Stage 5 We move on

This stage should be ‘celebrate success’ and that is what I wrote in my first draft. But it’s not true, that is not what happens. Usually, by the time the project has moved through the final comments and approval stage, everyone has moved on and is doing something else. But that’s just real life. I, too, have probably got one or two other projects bubbling away in various stages of development. These kinds of collaborations are not tidy projects. They come together and then they dissolve – but hopefully the outcome is learning materials that are authentic, rooted in practice experience and of immediate relevance to our learners because that, in the end, is what it is all about.



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