Poor management of Subject Matter Experts is slowing down your elearning production process

Are your elearning projects being held up due to bottlenecks involving your SMEs? In this article, Steve Penfold shows you how to manage SMEs so you never miss another deadline.


SMEs are valued for what they know in their respective fields. Typically, Learning Designers or Instructional Designers (LDs or IDs, respectively) extract the SME’s knowledge so that they can get on with the task of producing the learning. After they extract the information, they send the SME away and don’t care what they do as long as they don’t interfere with the production process.

And that’s a shame. Why? Because when you treat SMEs like bare resources, they will lack the motivation to help you with the content you desperately need.

Learn how to manage SMEs more effectively so you can speed up elearning production.

1. Involve the SMEs right from the start

Firstly, it’s wise to involve SMEs from the earliest project meetings. Don’t just pull them in to fill in content blanks once the broader decisions about scope, look and feel, deployment options, etc. have been made. All of these other things are there to support the content, so it makes sense to let the content experts have a say. SMEs shouldn’t necessarily have the final say – content may be king, but logistic reality is his headstrong queen – but SME input will help validate the early decisions being made. It can also highlight areas where later rework would otherwise be necessary. For example, imagine if stakeholders want to implement mobile but the knowledgeable SME points out that the environment that the audience operates in is not mobile friendly.

In addition to being great sources of subject and audience-demographic knowledge, SMEs are also often a first-line testing resource. Because the L&D function may not have vision of SME availability, another plus of having SMEs involved in early discussions is that L&D can understand their schedules and factor this into the overall production timeline. This can help avoid wasteful production and testing bottlenecks later.

Related: 7 practical tips to help you to get the best from your Learning and Development team.

2. Challenge SMEs to keep content tight

SMEs know a lot about their subject and they’re often keen to share it all! But including more content doesn’t necessarily make for better courses.

Tight, concise content has three huge benefits over a bloated alternative:

  1. It’s easier and quicker to produce;
  2. It’s easier and quicker for the audience to consume; and
  3. It’s more powerful and useful to the audience.

When mining an SME for information, you can make long-term efficiencies by asking the SME to justify (in the nicest, gentlest way, of course) why they want to include particular content. If content isn’t necessary for a learner to do what it is that you want them to do, then consider dropping it.

For example, understanding the history of widget manufacture probably won’t help a salesperson sell widgets, so it wastes everyone’s time to include it in a widget sales course, both at the production and consumption ends of the process.

3. Use SMEs as an authoring resource

SMEs can be an enthusiastic, untapped production resource. Depending on their skill level, availability and desire, you can leverage this enthusiasm and have them write some content. Examples of where SMEs could add value in this respect are writing simple cheat sheets, coming up with scenarios for developers to drop into interactions, writing realistic distractors (incorrect options) for quiz questions, or even plugging content directly into a simple authoring tool like Elucidat. Instructional writers may need to tweak SMEs’ words to make the language consistent with other material that’s been written, but the expert thinking and hard work for that piece would have been done.

The key is to provide a rigid framework to keep the SME on track and capture their work by using master templates and being very specific about what the course and downstream production team needs.

Here’s a quick animation to show you how Elucidat can gives SMEs structure while authoring content:


For example, let’s say a course calls for an interaction where a client-customer conversation evolves over four screens or reveals. An SME would know what a conversation like this sounds like, so it makes sense to let them write one for you.

You could provide a document template to the SME that includes:

  • Immovable background information like the characters to use and environmental setting,  perhaps because these had been established elsewhere in the course;
  • Minimum and maximum word counts to guide the SME because the conversation text needs to fit into defined areas on the course’s screens;
  • A clearly-labeled area for the SME to indicate what each speaker’s mood is at each point of the conversation so that appropriate character graphics can be sourced; and
  • A clearly-labeled area for the SME to populate what the actors actually say at each of the four conversation points.

Tools like Elucidat can help you give SMEs a tight brief and a simple template that make it easy for them to write a piece of content – you can cut out one or more iterations of a design and review process and free the LDs and IDs to work on other elements of the course.

Related: 3 advantages of involving more non-technical stakeholders in the elearning production process

4. Be specific about what you don’t want

involve SMEs

And finally, be specific about what you don’t want from an SME. This is especially true if you’re using them in a writing or review capacity.

For example, if an SME is reviewing some alpha release deliverables, let them know that you don’t want them commenting on things like colors or navigational standards that were signed off on months before. In this example, be clear that they should report things that are wrong, not working or ambiguous, but not things that are a personal preference. It’s a waste of everybody’s time for SMEs to consider and report aspects of a deliverable that can’t be changed. The good news is that if the SMEs were present in the earlier project meetings, then they’ll already have a good idea of what these things are!

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Steve Penfold

Steve Penfold

Steve Penfold is the Chief Executive of Elucidat. He helps large companies and training providers speed up and simplify their elearning authoring.
Steve Penfold

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