How to get the best out of your Subject Matter Experts?

How to get the best out of your Subject Matter Experts?

As an instructional designer, I have worked with many Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). I came across several SMEs who lack the experience of working with an instructional designer, hence making them aware about the process of creating an e-learning course. It goes without saying that SMEs play an instrumental part in developing an effective e-learning course.

SMEs are connoisseurs in their field of work. They possess immense knowledge of the subject, contribute content, source materials, reference links, prioritize topics and concepts, check the content for technical accuracy, etc. Failure on an ID’s part to incorporate constructive information in the course can result in an ineffective e-learning product.

A good SME respects project timelines, understands learning objectives, the learner’s motivation and does not force every bit of content in a course. Before the start of any project, it is good to spend some time to get to know the SME. This ice-breaker forms the basis of a relationship of trust between both parties. Usually, SMEs are very willing to help and share their knowledge if you build a good relationship with them. The following are my observations on my interactions with SMEs.

Introduce e-learning to the SME. Explain what good e-learning is, its capabilities and limitations. Discuss timelines and the process of creating an e-learning product from concept to finish. To provide a better understanding, create a special project plan discussing each step of the project and timeline. Be specific about time commitments, such as an estimate of each task and the final deliverable dates. This will help both parties to stay on track and meet deadlines.

Discuss the SME’s role in the creating the product. Ask SME to schedule his time for your project and prepare him for the task on hand. Help him identify your training needs, audience and their motivation and learning objectives. Make sure that the SME is accessible for clarifications on the content during the development process. Communicate what you want, how much you want at each step of the project. Also, invite the SME to attend the kick-off meeting. He will be able to know and understand the target audience and the client’s needs.

Before your information-gathering meetings, do your homework on the subject. Read all you can on the topic before approaching the SME with a question or two, when in doubt because this wastes his time. Instead, create a question bank which the SME can answer in an organized manner.

While some e-learning companies have internal SMEs, often, the client too provides the vendor with internal experts. Respect the SME’s time. Plan deliverables, schedule meetings or phone calls according to his convenience.

It is possible that SME loses focus on the learning objectives. As an ID, you should help him stay on track. He may want to include unrelated content. Allow him to step into the learner’s shoes and ask,”How will the learner use this piece of information on the job?” Keep the extra content aside and find innovative ways to make it useful to the learner.

Update the SME during the development stage. If possible, share any available content. Ask the SME to proofread the course on completion of the first draft. Create a checklist with detailed instructions on proofreading the course. Your checklist can include details relating to consistency and clarity of the content, accuracy of review and assessments questions, technical accuracy of the content and flow of the course, etc..

By incorporating the above-mentioned points, I continue to enjoy a good working relationship with SMEs. Keeping them informed and involved during each step of the course creation process will lead to an effective alliance for your e-learning project.

What are your thoughts on the same? Do comment and share your knowledge on what it takes to be an instructional designer and what was your experience working with SMEs.

Thank you for reading my blog.

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  • Yogesh

    This really is a kind of information an ID would like to have. Knowing and understanding a sme is very important before we start thinking about our approach. The problem I faced was that the sme was unable to visualize the sb. And that is fair enough because they cannot visualize what we as ID do. The whole point is to make the sme aware of the approach and structure of the elearning product in the storyboarding phase avoiding any rework after the development phase.


  • Unfortunately, as companies embrace eLearning, sometimes in place of user manuals, the SME treats the ID the same as the technical writer. This is unfortunate because writing, while time consuming, is still faster than creating learning modules. The ID needs a magnitude more time than the technical writer to create the end product. Perhaps part of the SME education process needs to focus on the actual physical time it takes to produce learning modules.