Ultimate Guide: Working with SMEs

August 14, 2023
Guide Contents

Useful Stuff co-founder, Dr. Heidi Kirby, interviewed 11 instructional designers (IDs) to discuss their experience working with subject matter experts (SMEs). The IDs worked across all sectors – corporate, non-profit, government, higher education, freelance, and more – and had a range of 2 to over 20 years’ experience, with experience averaging at approximately 10 years. 

Although she kept interviews generally unstructured, allowing participants to tell their stories fully, she covered the following questions:

  • Describe a successful relationship working with a SME on a learning project.
  • Describe a difficult relationship working with a SME on a learning project.
  • What are some effective questions you ask during needs analysis?
  • What’s the most challenging thing about working with SMEs?
  • What’s the most beneficial thing about building a good relationship with SMEs?
  • What advice do you have for someone new to working with SMEs?

That research became the foundation for this guide on working with SMEs. If you're interested in hearing Heidi present about this research via video, check out this recap from the iDTX2024 conference!

Working with SMEs

After hearing dozens of stories about working with SMEs, some common themes emerged. 

The SME’s Personality Impacts the Relationship

In successful projects, many times SMEs saw value or were invested in the learning project or were just generally passionate about the work. In unsuccessful projects, the SME was more likely to have a reputation of being “difficult” – perhaps they have a fixed mindset, are resistant to change, are egotistical, etc. However, in some of the successful stories, the SMEs were considered difficult but the ID was able to work with them by listening, setting good expectations, and going out of their way to make the process as easy as possible. 

Communication is Key

Not only was this the top piece of advice IDs had for new SMEs, but in successful projects, solid expectations were set about the ID’s role, design and development process, and feedback.

The ID took time to listen to the SME and showed they valued their expertise, building trust and respect. The IDs said that the biggest benefits to having a good relationship with SMEs is 1) you have a supporter and advocate in your organization who you can learn from and go to for guidance and 2) you can get good, prompt feedback. In unsuccessful projects, the SME either didn’t give feedback at all, gave the incorrect feedback for that review cycle (e.g., making script changes for a final video review), or completely changed the scope of the project at the last minute. Sometimes a SME is also chosen who doesn’t actually have expertise in the subject matter (yes, it does happen!). 

Challenges with SMEs (and How to React)

If you’ve worked in L&D for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered someone talking about how difficult it can be to work with SMEs. We often blame SMEs when a project goes badly or when we don’t receive the feedback we expect. Here’s what we identified as the most common challenges when working with SMEs.

When expectations aren’t properly set, miscommunication occurs.

A theme heard repeatedly from the ID interviews was that when a SME was particularly difficult, it was because they didn’t feel heard. It can be hard to get the feedback you need when the SME doesn’t think you’ll even implement it. Additionally, SMEs might not understand your vision for the project if you are periodically sending them materials to review without the full context. It can be hard to build trust and buy in if you’re emailing a SME with a 2-day turnaround for a storyboard you haven’t explained and then CC’ing their boss if they don’t respond within 24 hours.

We recommend that you let your SMEs know at the beginning of a project what to expect. Share with them the outcome and objectives and what you will be asking from them in terms of time and types of reviews. Keep reading to learn more about how to run a successful kickoff meeting to set these expectations. If miscommunication does occur during a project – don’t wait! Schedule a 1:1 meeting with the SME to discuss and review virtually or in person so that you can find a solution quickly.

SMEs speak their own language and because they’re the experts, they have trouble simplifying information enough for the project.

In stories about working with difficult SMEs, IDs claimed that SMEs often found it difficult to simplify their ideas or information down enough for the purpose of the learning project. It’s an important skill for IDs to be able to take heaps of information and break it down into digestible parts. It’s also important for IDs to be able to quickly learn and speak some of the basic jargon that SMEs use (and avoid L&D jargon in the process). You don’t have to be the expert – that’s what the SME is there for, but you do have to learn enough about the topic to be able to talk to the SME and create the learning experience. 

SMEs have very limited time to review/give good feedback.

It’s important to remember that if your SMEs are truly the expert, they’re likely in high demand and really busy – they may not have a lot of time for reviews. They may also struggle to see the value in reviewing materials if it’s not a primary responsibility of their role. They may not understand the review request or the purpose of the review, and if there are unclear expectations, they might give feedback that is unexpected or out of scope. For example, if you don’t tell them that you’re asking for a final review of functionality of a learning video in the learning management system (LMS), they may send feedback that changes the script video entirely – at the eleventh hour.. when you’re ready to publish… and now you have to start over. If a SME starts giving you feedback that is out of scope – again, don’t wait! Let them know how those changes will impact the timeline. But it’s better to tackle this before it happens by outlining the exact type of feedback you’re looking for at each stage and why. 

Sometimes You Can’t Win.

In some cases, a SME is assigned to a learning project by someone else who doesn’t have the time or energy to be involved in the project, but the problem is that person is not the best SME or not even a SME on that topic at all. When this happens, it’s best to try and see if you can’t add 1-2 more SMEs to the review process (which is a rare recommendation – usually more SMEs complicate things). However, sometimes you just can’t win. Sometimes you just get stuck with one, wrong SME… or you get a SME who consistently changes the scope until the project is dead… or you just get a SME who doesn’t respond to you at all, no matter what you do. When this happens, sometimes you have to accept the loss and simply reflect on how to make it better next time. 

How to Work Successfully with SMEs

A lot of IDs want to blame SMEs when a project goes wrong, but WE are the learning experts. It’s up to us to EDUCATE not only our end audience but the SMEs and stakeholders we work with. Involving SMEs early in the project, and keeping them updated throughout can help them feel heard and can make sure the final product meets their expectations – and therefore, the intended learning goal. By setting expectations early in the process, you can build that trust with your SMEs – allowing you to better communicate with them, and most importantly, you can give them the information, guidance, and support they need to make the information sharing and review processes as efficient as possible. 

Here was the advice IDs had for working with SMEs:

  • Building the relationship and educating the SME on what we do is critical
  • Continue to grow your ID skills so you can stick to the process and avoid becoming an order taker
  • Be organized and prepared and do a kickoff meeting as soon as you can
  • Set expectations for not only what we do but for feedback and their commitment
  • Be curious and ask good questions
  • Always assume positive intent - most SMEs just want to be heard

Asking Good Questions During Needs Analysis/Assessment

The brilliant, experienced IDs Heidi spoke to shared some of their best needs analysis/assessment questions for both the current state and future or desired state. The general questions below were created based on the themes that came up most often during the ID interviews:

Current State

  • What is the current problem?
  • What are you seeing from your perspective?
  • What is the real issue or problem?
  • What current resources or training exist?

Future state:

  • What are you trying to get them to do?
  • What does the ideal thing look like?

For a more comprehensive list of questions, visit this needs analysis checklist (sign into your Google account and select “Make a Copy” to have your own checklist of needs analysis questions!)

Setting Expectations at a Kickoff Meeting

There are multiple reasons why holding a kickoff meeting at the beginning of your learning project is a good idea. Here are a few:

  • Aligns expectations – a kickoff meeting allows the project team to communicate the desired goals and outcomes of the project, as well as the SMEs expected level of involvement
  • Builds trust – the kickoff meeting may be the first time a member of the L&D team interacts with a SME, so it’s a great way to establish a relationship and allow the SME to become comfortable working with the L&D team (the better the relationship, the more SMEs enjoy helping us!)
  • Provides a dedicated space for questions – if a SME is helping the L&D team for the first time, they may have questions about exactly how the team designs and develops learning, and providing them an opportunity to ask questions and get answers can help them be more effective in giving feedback – the more they understand the project, the better the feedback will be
  • Identifies potential risks – a kickoff meeting allows the team and SMEs to identify any potential challenges or issues that may arise during the project – and to come up with strategies to address them

In my research on successfully leading learning projects and my research on working with SMEs, collaborating and communicating successfully with SMEs is a key skill to ensuring a project is successful. A kickoff meeting is a great way to start that collaborative relationship.

Kickoff Meeting Best Practices

The kickoff meeting should include elements that help align the learning project to the team and organizational goals and that ensure the learning materials and activities will meet the needs of the audience. Some of those elements include the following:

  • Review of goals/outcomes – this will help everyone in the meeting remember what you’re hoping to achieve – but you should also discuss how you will know the project met its intended goal, or how you will prove project success
  • Discussion of the target audience – by defining, specifically, who the project is for, you can determine any special considerations that would need to be made for that audience or how the audience might impact how you approach the project
  • Discussion of learning outcome and objectives – it’s a good idea to continue to remind your team and the SMEs of the learning outcome and objectives so that you can make sure the project remains useful and will meet the intended goal
  • Review of project scope and timelines – this helps to make sure everyone is aware of the deliverables and milestones so they can plan time to dedicate to the project  accordingly
  • Identification of additional resources and support – if there are any additional resources needed, such as budget or equipment, those should be shared with everyone
  • Discussion of communication channels and review expectations – this is where you’ll let the SME know both how much time they can expect to spend on the project as well as how you’ll be contacting them for review (e.g., chat, email, virtual meeting) and how often
  • Identification of risks and obstacles – the team and SMEs should work to identify any potential challenges that might come up and ways that they will be mitigated or solved

The actual meeting will depend on your team and the organization’s culture. It might be run by a project manager on your L&D team, an instructional designer, or the L&D leader. You might choose to present all of the information in a slide presentation, a document, or a spreadsheet. You might send materials to review before and simply use the time to discuss any questions, or you might go through all of the elements in the meeting, leaving time for questions at the end. The meeting may not even be a meeting at all. For example, if you work with a remote team who work different hours, you might share the information in a document that everyone can comment on asynchronously. It’s really up to you and your team to find what works best for everyone. And don’t forget, you can test it out and try different ways to see what gets the best response.

Overall, the kickoff meeting should be about setting expectations and starting the project on a positive note that will carry on throughout the project. If the SMEs know what to expect and feel comfortable with the project and expectations, they will be more comfortable collaborating and communicating their feedback. 

Communication is Key (Did we mention that?)

One thing was very clear - the most important part of working with SMEs is building the relationship and setting expectations early. Everyone has an idea of what training looks like, but most don’t understand the full responsibilities and process of instructional design. Involving SMEs at the beginning of a learning project is a win for everyone – it allows the SMEs to understand what they’re being asked to do in the context of the whole project, and it allows your L&D team to get the information they need to choose the right learning intervention and create an experience that is useful to the audience.