A Complete Guide to Working with Your Subject Matter Expert
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Instructional Design
min read

A Complete Guide to Working with Your Subject Matter Expert

As an instructional designer, you might find yourself designing an advanced training course for microbiologists one day, and an overview course on Shakespeare’s collected works the next. Fortunately, you don’t have to be deeply knowledgable on all of these topics, because you have a magic bullet in your arsenal: a subject matter expert (SME).

SMEs are the true authorities who lay down the foundational knowledge upon which your educational materials are built. It’s your job to get that relevant knowledge out of your SMEs brain and to work with them to piece together a great curriculum. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. You’ll be working closely with someone who may not understand or even respect what you do and may have totally different ideas about what a finished course should look like.

The key to creating a productive working relationship with your SME is clear communication and expectation-setting. We’ve got tips to help you build that relationship, and we’ll help you troubleshoot some common SME problems.

Lay the Groundwork

Your subject matter expert may have never worked with an ID or been involved in an education project before. Set the tone for a fruitful working relationship by establishing roles and expectations up front.

Put together some orientation material that you can share with your SME during the kickoff meeting. Some IDs create introductory packets, checklists, or RACI charts that they review with each SME they work with. If you work with a lot of SMEs, this will save you time in the long run.

Here are some of the most important subjects to cover at the beginning of your relationship.

Give a (Very Brief) Introduction to Instructional Design

Orient your SME with an introduction to what instructional designers do and what you need help with in order to do your job.

You don’t want to bog down your SME with unneeded details about Bloom’s taxonomy or ADDIE, but a primer on common ID terminology will lead to more fruitful conversations. You could also give them an outline of what effective learning objectives look like to help guide your team in creating the course.

Share Your Vision for the Project

Most SMEs have limited familiarity with what finished courses should look like. They may rely heavily on their own e-learning experiences, whether they were positive or not. Try to reframe their perspective with a brief introduction to your personal learning philosophy and vision for the course. Include examples, if you have them.

Set Team Dynamics and Expectations

One misconception SMEs sometimes hold is that the ID is working for them. This can poison the relationship by creating an ugly power dynamic. In reality, the two should be working together as a team. Clarify this up front so that you can start the relationship on equal footing.

Outline who is responsible for each component of the project, and establish the SMEs deliverables. By defining roles, you can set clear expectations of what the project will look like.

Build a Relationship

You will be working closely with your SME for weeks or even months. Cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship built on respect and communication.

SMEs are experts in their field and are very busy people. Respect their time by keeping your interactions organized. Always show up to meetings prepared with discussion topics, and follow up with direct and clear requests and action items.

While it’s important to stay on task, don’t let your only interactions with your SME involve your requests. Communicate frequently throughout the life of the project. Show them what you’re working on and ask for feedback. You can also give them constructive feedback on their own deliverables.

Keep relationship-building even after the end of the project. You may need an expert in their field again, and it’s far easier to work with an SME who already understands your work than it is to start the process over with a new one. Share any project outcomes or success stories with them, or send them relevant articles you come across.

Conduct Stellar Interviews

A large part of successful interviewing comes down to good prep work. Come to interviews with a clear plan to draw the most relevant information out of your SMEs. It’s their job to be the expert, but the process will be smoother if you both know what you’re talking about. Take some time to get an overview of the subject you will be working on. Asking your SMEs to recommend some resources is a great way to boost their confidence and solidify your relationship.

At the beginning of each interview, spend some time building rapport before diving into your prepared questions. This will help your SME feel more relaxed and open. During the actual conversation, be prepared to listen more than you speak.

Even if you’re an expert note-taker, make an audio recording of all interviews (with your subject’s permission). You can refer to it later if you need to clear up any inaccuracies or misunderstandings.

Troubleshoot Common Subject Matter Expert Issues

Even when you’ve done everything possible to cultivate a good relationship with your subject matter expert, you may still run into roadblocks. Here are some common issues, along with ways how you can approach them in a constructive way.

Scheduling Problems

You’re desperately trying to meet a project deadline, but your SME is busy doing their actual job, and helping you is clearly not their top priority.

You can try to head this problem off at the start by being up front about the time commitment before the SME agrees to take on the job. That may weed out particularly busy SMEs.

Once they sign on to the project, create a schedule with clear deadlines, and stick to them on your end to reinforce their importance. You can also create urgency by tracking project progress visually with charts or shared productivity tools.

Try to get the SME invested in the project’s success so they are motivated to make time for the work. Discuss the importance of the work you’re creating, and the potential impact of their contributions. Ask for their opinion, and thank them for their help. Share frequent project updates, and show them the work you’ve done on your end.

It can be frustrating to feel like the lowest priority. Your SME is probably busier than you, so try to be as flexible as possible. Be persistent, and make yourself available as their schedule dictates (within reason).

Combatting an Expert Mind-set

Some SMEs have been experts for so long that they have trouble sharing their vast stores of knowledge in a way that you (and your target learners) can understand.

There are a few techniques you can use to bring them down to your level:

  • Explain it like I’m eight. Ask them to explain the subject the way they would to a small child. Then, use this simplified explanation, and build up to reach your desired level of expertise.
  • Ask for real-world examples. If your SME tends to get bogged down in theories, try to ground them by asking for specific examples and scenarios.
  • Provoke a reaction. If you still can’t get your SME to come down to your level, you can give this tactic a try. Explain a concept back to them badly, and let them correct you. Often, this change in approach can help them focus and explain concepts more clearly.

Information Overload

Your SME is passionate about their subject — maybe too passionate. Often, they want to include information that, while it may be important to them or the subject, doesn't support the goals of that particular training. Attempts to edit are met with strong resistance.

When an SME get’s too attached to superfluous material, try to call back to the goals of your project. Remind them what you’re trying to achieve: We need student’s to come away with an understanding of the context of Romeo and Juliet, but we don’t need a full history of social norms in Elizabethan England.

Try to pull your SME out of their reverie by asking them to take a bird’s-eye view of the materials. Ask questions like:

  • How does this tie to our learning outcome?
  • What happens if the student doesn’t know this piece of information?
  • What do learners need to be able to do when this course is over? Can they do that without knowing this?

Recognize that editing-out information they are passionate about may be emotionally difficult. As CJ Escribano says in her blog post on working with SMEs, “Your challenge is to honor their passion without compromising the instructional effectiveness of your program.”

One way to do that is to create a file for interesting information that doesn’t actually contribute to your learning objectives. Let them get it out of their system with the promise to fit in anything that seems relevant, and let the rest go.

Process Problems

Sometimes overzealous SMEs try to hijack the course-creation process with executive changes and an inflexible mind-set. They might insist on last-minute content adjustments; provide you with unsolicited materials; refuse to sign off on final edits; or even insist on inappropriate design choices, such as specific fonts. All of this is extremely frustrating for IDs, who simply want to create compelling course content, not manage egos.

These power moves are often rooted in unrealistic expectations or a misunderstanding about the ID-SME relationship. You can try to sidestep the issue completely by laying a proper foundation, as described above.

If you run into issues in spite of your careful prep work, your best course of action is to appeal to the SMEs ego. Make them feel heard. If they send you extra work, read it thoroughly and praise their efforts, even if you don’t plan to use it. Listen to their views and arguments even when you don’t agree. Then, remind them of the project’s goals and the importance of adhering to them.

Build a partnership

If your goals and expectations aren’t aligned, working with SMEs can sometimes feel like pulling teeth. Don’t fall into an adversarial relationship with your SME just because you’re coming at a project from different angles. Remember that, at the core, you have the same goal: creating a course that helps people learn.

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