How to work better with your subject matter experts

The SME relationship can make or break an elearning project. As your gateway to the content, audience and organisation, the subject matter expert has the potential to either derail development or keep you on track and steaming towards the end goal.

how to work better with SMEs

As an instructional designer, learning consultant or elearning project manager, your job is to build a positive and productive relationship with your SME. You need to get them onside, get the best from them, and get them working in partnership with you.

The two big mistakes learning professionals make when working with subject matter experts:

  • Seeing them as a resource, not much different from the PowerPoint deck or training manual they might provide you with. This does them a huge disservice, sets a weak foundation for the relationship, and means you’ll lose out on a heap of valuable insight.
  • Seeing them as an obstacle – resisting innovation, picking holes in your design, missing review deadlines, requesting out-of-scope changes… The truth is, the issue here isn’t the SME but rather the dynamic you’ve established for the working relationship.

Let’s explore how you can avoid these mistakes on your next project.

15 tips for a great relationship with your subject matter experts

First impressions count, and the way you set up the relationship is crucial.

1. Engage your SMEs from the beginning, not just when you’re at the point of getting stuck into source material.

2. Introduce yourself! Give some background about your career and highlight successful or related projects you’ve delivered.

3. You’re both experts in your field. The project needs both of you so discuss how to work collaboratively rather than authoritatively positioning yourself as the boss.

4. You might have different views on how to get there, but you both want a successful project and effective end product. Define your shared goal and refer back to it often.

5. Bring them on a journey. Other people don’t know what you do about great learning. Show them compelling examples of the elearning design concepts you’ve got in mind.

When it comes to digging into the topic, subject matter experts are a goldmine of not just knowledge, but also experience. Your job is to elicit stories, case studies and the nuances of the subject that aren’t in the reference books. The golden rule here is to respect what they do.

6. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Digest the material they’ve given you and learn something about the topic and terminology before you meet. Show willing, interest and initiative.

7. Draft intelligent questions ahead of time. Remember you’re well placed to anticipate questions the end learners might have so don’t be afraid to interrogate the content.

8. Start with a blank screen, questions and conversation. This will yield more valuable information than your SME simply talking through their material.

9. Ask the SME about their career and experience, not just the subject. This builds rapport and gives you valuable stories that bring the content to life.

10. Listen. This is a big one. Active listening means reacting with interest to what they say, and reflect back what you hear to demonstrate your attention and understanding.

The SME’s role doesn’t end there. The most successful projects are built on continuing collaboration between the design team and subject matter expert. That means they don’t simply review what you do, but they’re truly on your team and helping to craft the product.

11. Be respectful of their time and other commitments. Discuss the schedule with them, don’t just impose it on them, and talk about how and when they’d like to be involved.

12. Invite their contributions as you create storyboards and develop the product. Flag where expert feedback is needed and welcome their opinions on the design and visuals, too.

13. Mind your language. Sheena LeBlanc Vaughan has some tips for substituting common words with more inclusive, collaborative alternatives.

14. If they resist some of your ideas, don’t dismiss their concerns. Try to understand why they are wedded to ‘the old way’ and then demonstrate the benefits of your approach.

15. At the end of the project – or even after any particularly onerous deliveries or review points – say thank you. A little appreciation for their time and effort goes a long way.

Work collaboratively to streamline the process for everyone

As mentioned above, collaboration with your subject matter experts can make the design process more efficient, more enjoyable and ultimately more successful. If SMEs are involved and invested as storyboards take shape and the product evolves, you’re far less likely to run into problems later on.

Collaborative content production doesn’t have to add lots of time or slow things down, particularly if you take advantage of elearning development tools that have the review process built-in, like Elucidat. Subject matter experts can add comments straight into the tool so there’s no uncertainty about which bit they’re referring to, and you can respond directly if discussion is needed. There’s no version control issue, and the time required for the back-and-forth to get feedback implemented is vastly reduced.

Find out how Elucidat’s collaborative authoring platform can help you do more in less time. 

Questions to ask your subject matter experts

Let’s come back to that key information gathering stage and the kinds of open-ended questions to ask.ask question blackboard

Start high-level: what do they want from the project and what will success look like to them? (This might not be the same as what the commissioning client wants.) Ask them how people are doing things now and how they should be doing things in future, then share ideas about how the elearning you create together might bridge the gap.

Subject matter experts often find it hard to prioritize content and want to include everything (we’ve all been there, right?!). Forcing them to cut content doesn’t do anyone any favors. Instead, ask them about the audience and the situations they’ll be in, and work together to justify the inclusion of every bit of content based on that: “How does this help people do their jobs?”

Encourage them to share real examples or hypothetical scenarios. At every point, ask “Can you describe a situation where…?” to keep the focus on application, not just theory.

Subject matter expert review checklist

A common complaint is SMEs requesting too many changes too late in the day. Aside from setting expectations and explaining the process early on, another thing you can do to minimize this risk is to provide a checklist for SME reviews.

Set out – politely! – what is not in scope, as well as a list of things they should be commenting on. At alpha stage, your checklist might look something like this:

Out of scope
  • Anything agreed earlier: color schemes, navigation, unit or chapter divisions
  • Things that are simply personal preference
In scope
  • Things that are wrong: written content or visuals
  • Things that are ambiguous and need revising
  • Things that are not working (functionality)
  • Scenarios or case studies that could be made more relevant or realistic

At beta stage, it’s likely that you’ll really only want them to flag any previously-requested changes that haven’t been actioned – make this clear.

In summary…

Subject matter experts are all too often the unsung heroes, and those are the lucky ones! Stereotyping them as the enemies of elearning slows down development and compromises quality. Remember: your subject matter expert is a collaborative stakeholder, not a reference tool. The key to success, not a thorn in your side. A teammate, not an obstacle. The aim should be not just mining their knowledge, but getting them invested in the success of the project so that they want to partner with you. That partnership and collaboration is the key to working effectively with SMEs.

We can make it easier!

Download our guide to developing a smarter elearning development process and start engaging your subject matter experts like the teammates they are!

CTA elearning development process

Stephanie Karaolis

Stephanie is a freelance learning designer and copywriter, drawing on a decade of experience in the industry, including roles at Saffron Interactive and in BP’s Online & Informal Learning team. She shares her learning ideas regularly on her personal blog.
Stephanie Karaolis

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