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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

SME 101: 3 Ways to Align for Success

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are pretty amazing. They hold a wealth of knowledge, and its the job of the instructional designer to help them make it learnable. In doing so, this knowledge becomes accessible to others. The partnership between SME and ID can lead to incredible things.


SMEs are often not primed with the knowledge they need to participate successfully in the development of learning experiences. Clients, particularly those that are working on content-heavy projects for the first time, often greatly underestimate the demands that are put on the subject matter expert.

And SMEs are typically managed by someone other than the instructional designer, which can make holding SMEs accountable to achieving the project goals a bit tricky.

Early SME and Client education can make a huge impact on project success and facilitate a positive relationship between you and your client (or colleagues).

So what is that you need to help the SME understand in order to achieve project success?

Let's talk about it.

Roles & Expectations

Many times, SMEs will have no prior experience working with IDs. They aren't clear about where their responsibilities end and the ID's begins. This can be even more confusing when they're already teaching people the stuff/designing training. So, help them understand how you can best collaborate by defining roles and expectations.

In the simplest terms:

The SME's job is to make sure everything is accurate and relevant.

The ID's job is to make it as "easy" as possible to learn.

In more granular terms, you might have to break it down to things like:

  • Who should be providing the content?

  • Who will be taking screenshots of the system?

  • Who supplies reference images?

  • Who will design the curriculum?

  • Who will write the assessments?

  • Who conducts research about the topic?

Workflows & Communication Pipelines

Content production is new to most SMEs (and clients). Their estimate of the time investment required to make a "simple video" or "just a short eLearning module" typically falls way short of reality.

To understand the process, most of them have to see it. Gantt charts, swim lanes, project plans... these tools are all critical to helping them understand what goes into creating the end product. It also helps them to understand how slipping on tasks along the way can majorly impact the final deadline.

To make the workflow work, though, you have to establish some communication ground rules:

  • What are the preferred communication methods for the SME and ID?

  • What are the hand off points? Who communicates, how, and when if a task is complete? If it's overdue? If you're going out of scope?

Getting these things down early in the process saves lots of headaches down the line.

How to Review the Medium

If you want to avoid endless review cycles, you'll have to teach the SME how to review. They may not be familiar with giving feedback on content. And even if they are things like storyboards, rough cuts, and digital learning experiences may be new to them.

Give them a checklist of the things you want them to be looking for. Regardless of which medium, I typically include a reminder to look for the following in the first draft:

  • Is the content accurate?

  • Is the content relevant?

  • Is anything missing?

  • Is there anything that should be cut/is excessive?

Educating the SME

If you focus on these three critical things-- roles and expectations, workflows and communication pipelines, and how to review the medium-- you'll have greater alignment and reap the benefits of an educated project team.

None of this is "set it and forget it," though. While I highly recommend taking the time to train SMEs formally at the beginning of a project (I even provide an SME handbook for reference for my clients), keep in mind that supporting SMEs is an on-going thing.

Don't freak out if a SME "just doesn't get it" on week 2 of a 6-month project. It takes time to learn new skills. Be patient, but strategic. Help them help you by providing clear guidance and leaving the door open to answer their questions along the way.


Need help training SMEs? Contact Your Instructional Designer for a consultation.

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