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Working with SMEs – Why, When, and How

As a training developer and eLearning author, you’ve probably been asked to cover a wide spectrum of training topics. A few of these topics might be ones in which you already have a deep knowledge base, but most frequently you’re probably being asked to write training content in areas in which you have little or no expertise. Inevitably, that is when you begin to look for a subject matter expert, or SME.

Identifying SMEs

Start identifying and talking with subject matter experts as soon as you receive an assignment where your expertise may not be sufficient. SMEs can frequently be found by polling individuals that work in a related area to the subject matter as SMEs are frequently seen by their peers as someone to turn to for coaching or mentorship. While an SME may not be an official “trainer,” you’ll usually find that this person has been involved in training efforts (either formal or informal) on their subject area in the past.

Early value of SMEs

By identifying SMEs early you can gain much needed clarity on learning objectives, which ones are the most critical and in what order they may need to be taught. If the topic is something that you know very little about, SMEs can provide you with the knowledge and resources needed to begin understanding the topic and building a preliminary training structure. Because SMEs may have been asked to train others on their subject areas in the past, they may already have developed training content that simply needs to be edited or converted to eLearning – rather than starting completely from scratch. Take the time to sit down with them, go over what they have provided, and ask questions about what things they think are the most essential for your training. You will find that doing this groundwork early will reduce the number of iterations you go through later in the development cycle.

Involve SMEs in development

Ask for feedback as you develop your eLearning product. However,  unless your SME is also a trained instructional designer, resist sharing unfinished eLearning content. Have SMEs review completed eLearning deliverables before deployment, but set clear boundaries around the specific type of feedback you seek. This means asking SMEs to share feedback on the overall eLearning, but encouraging them to focus on the actual content and whether it meets the necessary learning objectives.

This approach is important since someone who is unfamiliar with eLearning development can often become hyper-attentive to graphics and presentation appearance versus content needs –making it more difficult to get the right kind of feedback.  While legitimate errors or timing issues should be addressed, SMEs may make requests for edits that are unrealistic, outside of the scope, or too complex to justify the time required to make them. Make sure you are clear about the level of eLearning you’ve designed and explain why certain content is presented in the manner you’ve chosen –remember, they might be the content expert but they aren’t the instructional designer!

Build a relationship

Finally, make sure to use your interactions with SMEs to build your relationships with them. The stronger the working partnership you have with SMEs, the easier it will be to get future projects moving quickly and successfully. Share lots of gratitude, deliver what you say you will, and give your SMEs credit for the contributions they make to eLearning products. When you have SMEs on your side, your product and your learners will benefit.

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