Subject Matter Expert (SME) Survival 101

“Every time I’ve worked with a subject matter expert as an instructional designer, it was smooth sailing,” said no instructional designer ever. While working with subject matter experts (SMEs) may not always be smooth sailing, it doesn’t have to be tumultuous either. 

When first starting out, working with SMEs may seem intimidating. After all, they are the experts. We, as instructional designers, are simply the tool being used to transfer their knowledge to the learner. It is our job to translate, decipher, reword, and simplify what are sometimes complex topics. 

And the bottom line is we need their input to create engaging, relevant, and, most importantly, accurate learning experiences. 

When approached correctly, the relationship you build with your SMEs will be the key to successful Custom eLearning Development. So what can we do to keep the ship steady when working with SMEs? Here are a few tips to build and enhance these critical working relationships.

Relationship Building

You are likely to be working with your SME for an extended period of time. Communication channels should be open and transparent—and not just when you need information. Let your SME know that you value their input. Key things to consider: 

  • Provide constructive feedback on materials they provide and ask for feedback during each phase of the process. 
  • Let them know you value their contributions. 
  • Maintain strong lines of open communication. This keeps them involved and makes them feel valued for their insights. As they should be! 

Scheduling Conflicts

Another thing to note is that your SME is likely just as busy as you are. So be flexible. In today’s world of home offices and Zoom meetings, scheduling difficulties can present some problems. Being mindful of where your SME actually is in the world—and scheduling meetings during times that are convenient for him/her—will go a long way toward nurturing a great bond between you. 

If you find it’s still a challenge to meet with your SME, continue to reach out at different times and days. Remind them of their value to the project! You might ask questions like:

  • When is the best time to schedule live meetings?
  • Is there another communication medium that would work better for you?

Perhaps the best way to ensure positive outcomes with communication is to establish a schedule with set deadlines for each phase of the project. Convey these expectations to your SME and, when you do meet, respect their time. Be prepared with your questions and stick to an agenda to keep meetings short and to the point.

Narrow the Playing Field

A common issue when working with our experts during an eLearning project is that they just have so much knowledge. Everything they know about the topic or concept should be included in the training, right? Well. No.

Begin by working with your SMEs to narrow the field. They will want to include all they know about the topic because it is ALL critical in their estimation. 

But does it align with the learning objectives? 

Continue to steer these passionate SMEs back to what it is the learner really needs to do to change behavior or meet the training goals. You can continue to foster that good relationship by acknowledging the difficulty of letting some things go and asking questions like:

  • How does this content align with our target objectives for the course?
  • Is this material likely to enhance or distract from the goals of the training?
  • If the learner did not have this content, would they still be able to meet the learning objectives?

Simplify the Material

Another potential problem can arise when you, the ID, just cannot grasp the content. SMEs, being the experts that they are, don’t have to think critically about the content and may forget that you might have trouble understanding its complexity. If you are in this boat, be persistent. Here are some suggestions to avoid sinking: 

  • Ask for scenarios or situations that might represent the concept.
  • Reiterate what you believe to be an accurate analysis of the concept. If incorrect, they will be able to provide feedback.
  • Ask if they have any prior training or materials you could review at a slower pace.

Keep in mind that you may be the captain of the eLearning ship, but your SME is the first mate. You need their experience, knowledge, and insights to successfully navigate through each phase of the project and to ensure a positive training outcome.

If you are looking to chart new waters with your training, eLearning Brothers Custom eLearning Development is here to help. We pride ourselves on creating and maintaining professional, effective relationships with our clients and subject matter experts and creating training materials that are deeply immersive and visually explosive!