Working with Subject Matter Experts: A Blessing or A Curse?

Subject Matter Expert image

Way back in 2005, one of our senior instructors presented a session at the annual Training Magazine Conference, with the same title as this blog. It’s still a valid concern in 2018! There are many projects when instructional designers can’t do their jobs without the valuable help of subject matter experts (SMEs)! They can help with many steps along the way:

Working with Subject Matter Experts can be a blessing and a curse!

  • During the Analysis phase they may be the source of information about the required job performance as well as the job context.
  • During the Design phase they can help us create SMART objectives; and plan realistic case studies, role plays, exercises and activities to be used during the program. And they have valuable insight into what will be needed back on the job to support learners so they achieve the final required job performance as quickly as possible.
  • During the Development phase they review the materials for accuracy and completeness.
  • During the Implementation phase they can help with the pilot and may even deliver the program, if it is instructor-led.

The Blessings (Advantages of Working with Subject Matter Experts)

  1. They can provide insight into the performance in the workplace.
  2. They can ensure the content is accurate and complete.
  3. They can help reduce Analysis, Design and Development time.
  4. They add credibility to the content.
  5. They can act as champions of the learning program.

The Curses (Challenges of Working with Subject Matter Experts)

Availability and Reliability

    1. It’s difficult to get time with the Subject Matter Experts.
    2. They don’t meet commitments.
    3. They don’t seem to be experts on the subject.

Quantity of Information

    1. They seem reluctant to provide information.
    2. They don’t provide enough information.
    3. They provide too much information, and some isn’t relevant.


Quality of Information

  1. They don’t explain things clearly and are hard to understand.
  2. They use a lot of jargon.
  3. They don’t agree with each other.
  4. They change their minds about what they said earlier.
  5. When they review deliverables, they comment on details that shouldn’t concern them like format and layout and don’t pay enough attention to the content.

The ‘perfect’ Subject Matter Expert may be a bit of a mythical beast, but there is lots you can do to foster a productive relationship that results in the best possible learning experiences for your learners.

Tips for Maintaining a Productive Relationship with Your Subject Matter Expert

Preparation for Meeting with SME

    1. Be clear with management about the criteria for choosing a SME.
    2. Try to have the role of SME reflected in the person’s performance goals so they may take time away from their daily work to help.
    3. Do your homework before meeting with the SME. Learn some basics about their area of expertise. Plan good questions.

Initial Meeting with SME

    1. Clarify what skills you bring to the project.
    2. Present yourself as an advocate for the learners.
    3. Explain your instructional design process at a very high level, in simple language.
    4. Identify where in the project they will play an active role. Provide a draft schedule of their activities and estimated time; adjust to fit into their schedule.
    5. Explain that the accuracy, completeness and credibility of the content depends on the information they provide.
    6. Do not use training jargon. Do learn the jargon related to their content.
    7. Show them a sample of what you need to create with them.
    8. Provide templates to help guide their input.

During Meetings to Collect Required Information

    1. Don’t pretend you understand when you don’t. Ask for clarification, “Could you give me an example?” “Could you draw me a picture of that relationship?” “Could you please explain that again.”
    2. Actively confirm your understanding by paraphrasing, giving the SME an example, or drawing a diagram of what the SME has just told you.
    3. If the SME seems to be telling too much, ask what would happen if the learner didn’t know those details.
    4. If the SME may have left something out, ask how they got from “a” to “c”.
    5. Observe performance by the SME where possible. Use the most appropriate technology to capture the performance.
    6. Update them on the project on a regular basis. Give them advanced notice of changes in the schedule.

As Subject Matter Experts Review Program Materials

    1. Always clarify the scope of a review.
    2. When there are multiple SMEs, decide at the beginning of the project what the dispute resolution procedure will be.
    3. Make use of collaborative technology to expedite review.
    4. Get sign-off on deliverables.
    5. Always give SMEs the opportunity to validate a deliverable to which they contributed before showing it to anyone else.

Giving Feedback, Thanks and Credit

  1. Keep your manager and the SME’s manager informed about project status. Give credit where credit is due. Flag potential problems as required.
  2. Give feedback and thank the SMEs throughout the project.
  3. Give public credit to the SMEs for their contribution to a project.
  4. If possible, reward the SMEs for their contribution to a project.

Interested in having one of our facilitators deliver a one- to two-hour session on working with Subject Matter Experts for your group? E-mail for more details.

Geoff Nolan
Director of Marketing and Public Workshops