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10 tips for working in perfect harmony with your subject matter expert

When it comes to working with a Subject Matter Expert (SME), you need to make sure that your working relationship runs smoothly. This can sometimes be a bit of a challenge, so we've put together some tips to help you get the job done and avoid mutual frustration.

In some situations a Subject Matter Expert thinks their job is to give you a 200 page presentation and answer a few questions and that it’s up to the Instructional Designer to do the rest. This kind of misunderstanding can make your job 10 times harder so it’s important that you create a good working relationship from the beginning.

These tips will help you manage your relationship with your subject matter expert and make life easier when building an e-learning project.

1.  Find the right person

Make sure the person actually is the SME, some people think they are experts but may not be. It’s probably worthwhile checking their track record and ensuring they have working experience of the subject. You may also find that the main SME may not have the time to commit to the project. So there may be someone else with the same experience and has more time to dedicate to the project.

2. Get their commitment

Be clear about the timelines involved.  Don’t make the mistake of setting inaccurate deadlines that you know the SME is not going to deliver on. It’s one of the pain points that SMEs complain about – they feel that projects take too long. Be clear from the start so you don’t set any false expectations.

3. Show examples of good e-learning

Help the SME understand what you want the content to look like by showing them good examples of previous work.  From their point of view it will help them understand what they need to give you to reach the desired outcome.

4. Outline the process and deliverables before you start the project

Sit down and talk through the process. Discuss the different stages of instructional design process, for example, scope, outline and production script. Be clear about who is responsible for what. Think about what the SME is responsible for delivering which could be raw training materials, possibly the graphics, case studies and policy documents. The SME tends to be responsible for inputting to the production script and would need to review this before you apply it to the Authoring Tool. Ensure that you outline the key deliverable dates and highlight any risks.

5. Respect what they give you

Read their work thoroughly and remember that they are the SME for a reason; they know their stuff. If you get a 200 page document, read it first and think of ways you can make life easier the next time. Perhaps suggest a brain dump or an interview.

6.   Involve them from the beginning

Get the SME involved from the beginning. Their input will be invaluable from start to finish, this will also give them a feeling they are fully involved.

7.   Keep them updated

Keep the SME fully involved throughout the project. Doing this will mean you keep a good relationship with them and there will be no grey areas. Practically this also helps with the build, when you produce small amounts of the content get them to review it as you go along so you keep on track and ensure that the content is accurate and consistent.

8.   Ask for advice on making the content practical

Get your SME to think of ways to make the content practical and engaging. Using case studies and real life job scenarios will create a much better final project.

9.   Make them feel good

Ensure you tell everyone about your SME’s contribution and how key they were to the success of the project. Again this will mean you keep a good relationship with your SME and ultimately mean in future projects you can kick-off straight away with both you knowing what’s required.

10. Be flexible

We know you’re busy but remember your Subject Matter Expert is most likely to be even busier! This means you’ll sometimes have to try and work around their schedule. It’s also worth being easy to find and get back quickly when your SME is looking for you.


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