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Being orthogonal

It’s been so long since I last posted here, mostly because I’ve been buried in client work. A sudden, unexpected contract opportunity arose and I dove in. It was zero to 60 in less than one week.

As a part of my work I’ve been doing interviews with SMEs. You know, very highly technical people who are passionate about their work — but not always so good at communicating the essence of the product or idea they are working on. So in come the Learning Designers asking them to think differently — to teach without powerpoint! What? Is it possible – oh yes it is! Is it scary – of course.

But most importantly, as one SME pointed out “it’s orthogonal to my approach”.

Orthogonal – what the heck does that mean? It’s at perpendicular angle to the way, it’s at an tangential angle — basically it’s a techy way of saying: “I was heading in a different direction, and now you want me to rethink my approach?” Depending on the tone, and how many times that phrase is used, it could also mean “You’re pissing me off.”

Well good. As a learning designer I want to be orthogonal to your approach. I want you to think differently about your materials — I want you to think about those people sitting there listening to your powerpoint — YOUR LEARNERS. Guess what — they are orthogonal to your approach.

So the next time a SME says, “that’s orthogonal to my approach”, take it as a compliment.

Posted in instructional design.

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7 Responses

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  1. Saqib Ali says

    people who think for themselves are usually orthogonal to many approaches……

  2. Tim Flood says

    Hi Rani,

    This is a good post. Being orthogonal is thinking out of the box, it is seeking another way, it is taking the road not taken, ….


  3. Rani H. Gill says

    Saqib – As always, well said.
    Tim – Agree. It’s thinking out of the box given to you, whether that’s by life, or by an SME.

  4. JOE Houde says

    I’ve been thinking over the last couple of weeks about the difference between a SME, someone who is really good at their work but not dubbed SME, and someone who is expert at their work and at developing others. I have a creeping suspicion that SME is as much a political term as practical – that SME is used to make certain people feel good, possibly because they are a little curmudgeony.

  5. Rani H. Gill says

    You know Joe, hadn’t really thought about whether it was a political term but you are possibly right. I think it depends on the company. SME says “owner” – but whether or not they actual own the direction of the product or technology is uncertain. So those who think they are owners and want to have a say, will undoubtedly want to be called SMEs.

  6. JOE Houde says

    Hmm. Interesting point when referring to ‘owner’ and the direction of a product or technology – a quirk of your local industries, I expect. Or a quirk o fmy recent work, which is all wiht professional services clients where SME’s are either 1- an outside academic with a thick CV or 2- an internal line manager with years of experience. Amusingly, executives are rarely considered SME’s in my experience. I think because they have been removed too long from the mundane work.

    My original thought was probably more inspired by the comparison between most-used informal sources in organizations and those dubbed SME’s. I’ve seen some lack of overlap when SME is declared, and that makes it an interesting question of informal learning for me. Which is 80% of what I think about nowadays.

  7. Rani H. Gill says

    Joe – I think you’re right in saying it’s a quirk of the local industries — or rather what an SME is depends on the context of the company and the work that you do with them. If the work is about selling products, then the SMEs will be product managers, or other technologists. If the work is about “how to better manage people” or “how to have C-level conversations” or “financial acumen” — then the SMEs are more likely to be external to the company, or as you point out, those with years of experience within a line-of-business. It’s so funny — that in all the years that I worked in professional services — the word SME was not a part of my vocabulary — it was faculty or practitioner. A quirk, no doubt, of my former employer 😉

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