The Rapid Elearning Blog

At a recent conference, we were asked what typically held up the production process for elearning courses.  The number one response was working with the subject matter expert.  This makes sense since they play such a critical role in the course’s success.

The subject matter experts know the content and understand the work environment.  Because of this, much of your project hinges on their time and the commitment they make to the project. The challenge is that our subject matter experts are like the rest of us and just don’t have a lot of time to spare.

Since it is so critical to your success, now’s a good time to look at some ways to manage the relationship with your subject matter expert (SME).

Don’t expect your SME to be an expert at learning theory.

I’ve been in meetings where the elearning design team goes round and round with the SME about "real learning."  They’ll throw out names like Gagne and Bloom.  A brave one might even slip in learning theorist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.  That’s not going to work.  We don’t want to come off as elitist know-it-alls.  Instead, we want to create great elearning.  Skip the name dropping.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: telling subject matter experts about learning theory

Most likely your subject matter experts’ understanding of elearning is driven by two things:  their gut and a course structure they’re familiar with.

The biggest issue isn’t their gut instincts.  They might not know all of the ins and outs of learning theory, but they’ll have a general sense of what works and what doesn’t.   The challenge for you is that most people copy what they’re familiar with.  So you’ll get a SME who probably wants a course that looks and feels like all of the other elearning courses they’ve taken. 

Considering that a lot of elearning courses are basic click-and-read they might not be expecting more than that.  So the odds are that the course they envision is heavy on information and light on interaction.  The good thing is that most people don’t like that type of elearning, even the SME.  They just don’t know the difference.  That’s where you come in.

Present some good examples of what you think will work.

Most likely what they know about elearning is based on the elearning they’ve taken.  By showing them examples of different types of elearning, you’ll be able to shape their understanding and help create expectations for a different approach.  If you want more than a click-and-read course, you have to show them an example of something different.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: showing subject matter experts examples of interactive learning

Ideally you want them to focus less on the information and more on making the information meaningful.  So, don’t focus on the multimedia bells and whistles.  Instead focus on relevant interactivity.  Show them examples that demonstrate how the learner learns more through the interaction. 

But don’t expect them to sit through a 30 minute course.  Instead, point them to what you like and why you think it will be good for their course.  Also, don’t bombard them with 20 things.  A good rule of thumb is to present three treatments so that they can get their heads around the ideas and not feel overwhelmed.

Everyone is working for the organization’s success. 

The organization defines success by reaching it’s goals in a cost effective and efficient manner.  You can contribute to this.

Fundamentally, instructional design is about crafting a learning environment that produces successful results.    This means more than just converting a PowerPoint slideshow to Flash.  Success comes when you can connect the course content to the learner’s world so that the learner is able to do something new or better.

One of the best ways to save time and money on your projects is to establish clear expectations.  Like you, the SME typically doesn’t have a lot of time.  Many times, they’re not even part of the project team; they’re just told to give you information.  So working with you is an excursion away from their normal responsibilities and a drain on their limited time.  You can control the time requirements by setting clear expectations that include agreed upon timelines and action items

People like to be recognized.  A great way to get the SME attention and support is to send a glowing email to the person’s manager and CC the SME.  This has never failed me.  Doing this will help you when you need some of the extra time from the SME for reviews or follow up.  

       The Rapid E-Learning Blog: partnering with subject matter experts for success

Make sure that your efforts make sense.  Early in my career I was working on a course in a production environment.  As I was wowing them on the production floor with all of my fancy ideas about learning, one of the senior technicians facetiously asked, "You’re one of those college educated people, huh?"

I got it.  I over-engineered the elearning.  I tried too hard to make it "fancy" and not hard enough to make it a good course that met their needs.  Ultimately this impacts how people view your contribution.  Instead of being seen as a valued partner, you’re seen as someone they have to tolerate or worst case, a nuisance because you don’t bring real value and waste time.

A critical facet in managing your elearning project is managing the relationships with people who support it.  If you want your project to be successful, you need to establish a good working relationship with your subject matter experts.  They play a key role in the content you need, how you design your course, and whether the course succeeds or not.

What are some things you’ve done to help manage the relationship with your subject matter experts?  Leave a comment here.


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49 responses to “What Everyone Should Know About Working with Subject Matter Experts”

Great Article!

We actually have a great product designed around streamlining the process for Subject Matter Experts to complete reviews in a cost effective and timely manner. If any of your bloggers would like to know more they can visit our website at where they will find our contact information.

Hi Tom,

Great Blog!!!! It never fails when I’m thinking of an issue, you come up with a solution. 🙂 I am a firm believer that at least 50% of becoming a successul Instructional Designer is knowing how to manage your SME’s. This is not at all easy. However, it can be done with practice.

Here are five suggestions I use for managing SME’s:

1) Build a relationship (introduce myself and my goals)
2) Present a clear agenda prior to our meeting
2) Drive the content out of the SME
3) Follow-up, Follow-up, Follow-up
4) Provide 2 to 3 examples
5) Keep management in the loop (copy them on your emails)

October 14th, 2008

I have found that listening to the customer (SME in this case) and then asking them questions to drill down to the essentials, gets to the nub of the material. You can then offer solutions and sometimes the (SME) didn’t even think of something that simple. Sometimes (and I hate to say it) there wasn’t even an eLearning aspect to some of the things I have been consulted on.

But then, you have said all this already 🙂

Thanks for the latest blog entry on SMEs. I found it a very helpful article – thanks.

October 14th, 2008

To minimze the amount of SME time we take up, we routinely use little pocket recorders to record our discussions with them about content, or record them talking through their lecture slides. Then we can extract the main points, refine the content, and send it back to them for review once we’ve organized the content and built in the learning activities.
This way, they oly need to dedicate blocks of time in about 2 hour chunks, to provide content, and then a longer chunk for the final review.

October 14th, 2008

During the initial research, I find out what communication style they prefer. For example, many prefer an e-mail with a 24 or 48 hour reply request so they can follow up at their convenience.
Others prefer I give them a printed copy and then schedule a meeting to go over the document.
And other prefer I send a soft copy of the document and they will call me and provide verbal feedback so they don’t have to write anything.
Then during the content review, I invite all SMEs to a presentation in the training lab, but several folks prefer I load the course into our LMS and send them a link and password so they can actually take the course at a time that fits their schedule. These folks usually get the link a few days before the scheduled presentation. We also use Go To Meeting when the SMEs are in different locations.

Mardi Coleman
Web-based Training Developer
Reservations Change and Learning
Southwest Airlines Co.

Great post, Tom, as usual. I have a question. You said “give credit to the sme”. Is there a situation where you give too much credit and flattering that it looks sleezy? Another question I have, do I need to share all details of the e-learning design with the sme ?

Thanks for your insights.

I agree with Kathie’s five suggestions — I do the same with the addition of one suggestion: Be careful what you promise.

I long ago learned not to be the know-it-all designer; instead I’m a good listener and learn what the SME doesn’t like about what their familiar with — then the examples come out.

I have run into the problem of the SME not liking the functionality of an example because they see clipart rather than the photos they like. The key is to keep them focused on how you’ll use the functionality of that Engage interaction with the SMEs content.
Another past issue has been managing SME/client expectations for what they see in the review cycle. Publishing Engage interactions and Quizmaker quizzes to MS Word is sometimes helpful, but not always. I don’t like to insert Engage or Quizzes until the SME is done making changes to the PowerPoint. Usually, the SME makes changes directly in the PowerPoint or uses Track Changes in the MS Word files.

October 14th, 2008

Your point about showing examples is hugely important and it goes beyond the likelihood that the client will not be familiar with different styles of elearning.
A significant percentage of people do not have the ability to concretely visualize an end product from a verbal description. It is very easy to have complete agreement on exactly what will be produced and both parties be “seeing” something different. The time to realize that is in the initial phase.
Having working examples which are not theirs also lets you discuss the purpose of the interaction or form without having the client focused on how big the logo is, or whether the colors match, or even if the content needs copyediting.

Great blog. My SMEs don’t know one thing about elearning. Zilch. Elearning is new for our company. Our SMEs are retired Federal employees who have never taken an elearning course. This makes for a challenging work environment.

I only wish they had some experience with elearning. My ISDs spend most of their time guidiing the SME away from excessive content and government legalese. Plain language is important even in the Federal training space.

Very good pointers – I would sum it up like this – spend a day (or some amount of time) in the SME’s shoes – they appreciate the fact that you want to truly understand what you are writing about. And continually ask the question – does the learner really need to know this?

I like to apply the Fish philosophy to my meetings. I make it fun so my SME’s want to come back. I’ll have theme meetings, my SME’s never know how I’ll be dressed or how the meeting room will look. Depending on the theme I provide diffrent types of food. Once I planned to develop a course and knew I was going to needed to meet with my team of SME’s five times. So I dressed as a casino dealer and at the end of every meeting everyone got a playing card and the SME with the best poker hand at the end of the development won a prize. I find that people do want to help you, if make it fun.

Others have made many suggestions that I would have made, such as building a relationship and appreciating the SME and acknowledging them.

I would add that if your culture permits it, consider leaving the SME out of the details of how you are going to build in interactivity, etc. In my experience, keeping them focused on content and accuracy of examples, etc. is the critical part.

In response to a previous post about acknowledging SMEs without appearing sleazy, I have never seen over-the-board acknowledgement. A credits page or a photo/bio is often a nice way to do it.

October 14th, 2008

I routinely set the dates for the deliverables significantly before I really need the content, so, when they are late, it is OK. I also do not take it personally when it turns out that the content experts have not read any (or little) of the information, instructions, or samples I have sent them.

Hi Tom

I liked your article today, it made some good points…
And I agree with the points raised by Fraser and Lisa about the importance of listening to the SME – THEY know THEIR content – and they know it much better than I could ever know it – so their knowledge is crucial…Karlene’s idea of spending a day in their shoes is supporting this concept as well!!

Secondly, I’d suggest presenting “negative examples” along with positive examples. The negative examples would NOT be from their organisation, nor necessarily from their industry, as this will be non-confrontational. The importance of “negative examples” in learning theory is HUGE. Especially if you have the reason why the example is “negative”, that is WHY it did NOT work!! Positive examples alone will not develop any concept.

FInally, I also agree with Keith – using the “Fish” philosophy – as that is about being positive, building a team and being unique!!

Great post! and very interesting and important content. I work as an Instructional Designer, here in Mexico. We have similar problems as every e-learning project might have, but with SMEs we have some more and different. One of these problems are “Egos”. SMEs feel like they know everything about the project and learning content, the truth is that they usually discriminate or see other members of the team work’s less important as theirs. The thing is that we have to work together as an only and big team, to reach learning goals and get better. Sometimes SMEs are the clients, so these ego-problems are bigger, but, as the song says: We’ve only just begun… well here at home, hehe!
Thanks a lot for your advices and all your followers’

October 14th, 2008

Great post. Online meetings to review successive prototype iterations are also effective. SMEs receive a link to view the elearning from a LMS prior to the meeting and then we review it together online. This has worked very well to date.

October 14th, 2008

The problem here is not to get bored .The subject has to be very clear and understandy.The attention of the audience has to be focus by photo and less writing . I learn that by focus in a object ,describe by short paragraph and giving short word to identify the object. The atention was capture.Of course I am taking about kid fron K- 12 . So it depend of the viewer. But it no so easy because verybody has a different ways of learning. And you have to try to capture on the march.The teacher has to have lot of way to get the information to the students and not only that, to stay in their mind and to make activity to reforce this concept.Thank you

What image style did you use for the clipart. I’d like to find a similar image.

October 14th, 2008

All good advice! Our work is done in the context of a larger project group. We brief our SMEs on the project and suggest a range of dates in which they can deliver. If they can’t do it within the range, we ask them to set a date when they can deliver. Back at my desk, I check the project schedule to see if I can accommodate their date. If I can’t, I declare to the rest of the project core team that we won’t be ready because the SME can’t perform. That results in a discussion betwee project management and the SME’s manager. Usually, the SME’s priorities are reset to meet the dates of the project. If not, project management has an early opportunity to find a way around the issue. This makes the availability and cooperation of SMEs the responsibility of project management. SMEs are often caught in the squeeze between their product development tasks and SME duties. I can’t help the SMEs directly, but project management can help relieve some of the pressure by working with their boss.

Great feedback and suggestions. I’ll pull them into another post down the road.

@DM: I used style 876.

I feel I have become a SME in the area of on-line education. It has been four years since the start of my e-learning experience. I currently take classes that ranging from job specific to university level curriculums. I’m not completely sold on the use of the SME in all subject matters. There is so much information on the web, the information is already there. Many of us already hold the knowledge, skill, and ability needed to develop sound training programs. I would like to hear the groups point of view.

[…] » What Everyone Should Know About Working with Subject Matter Experts The Rapid eLearning Blog […]

Ok… question…

I am an SME… I blog at and I am about to launch a course/training program, but I am sure you lot could make it better!

In an ideal world I’d have a learning guru sitting next to me to help me setup an LMS or something, measure out the learning better, etc… but I don’t.

What’s possible for someone like me, who’s out there doing it all on his own, not as part of a corporate, etc.



Few steps which I follow:
1. Have a discussion with SME and indicate them that we are working towards a common goal which finally benefits them
2. Discuss the options very clearly and also the pros and cons of doing the same.
3. Discuss a clear plan and stick with the plan; for any delays inform them before hand and and ensure ontime delivery and quality of product
4. Any clarifications will be discussed informally and not a formal meeting forum for those issues.
5. Send appreciation mails even if that cost less effort from their side. Blow of the efforts and dont forget to inform the management on good deeds

Mihaly – that’s a new name for me 😉


Great insight on the ID-SME interaction. I work with Adobe, which as you all know manufacture some of the software used in eLearning, like captivate, Flash etc.

We have heard a lot on the issues around the ID-SME interaction. There seems to be two issues at work here : 1) Appreciation of each others position, need and value in creation of a quality course 2) Operational – scheduling and prioritisation of interactions.

There have been some very good discussions here on the first one, but not much on the second one. I was wondering is that because the second one (operational) is not really a key concern.

As a tools and technology vendor we would like to explore how technology can help in the opeartional problem. But, would liek to hear whether it is an important problem to solve for this community.

October 15th, 2008

Tom –

Excellent post once again. I have a presentation today where I was going to reference your blog and this is something that everyone can relate to. Thanks!

Excellent article! Wish I had written it… 🙂

October 15th, 2008

Great post! A couple of things I do when working with SMEs are…

1) Get commitment from the Management team on the time needed with the SME during project scoping.
2) Let the SME know that you value their time by trying to gather as much information on the subject before meeting with them as possible and come prepared with a list of questions.
3) Be flexible but firm about meeting times. Reschedule to another day or time if they cannot meet with you during the regularly scheduled time. However, if this becomes a chronic issue and/or meetings get pushed out more than a day or so, you will also want to share with them that you are trying to meet a deadline and it is important to meet with them to gather the information that you need. You could also share your timeline with them so that they understand the deadlines that you are facing.
4) I also try to include as much recognition as possible. At the end of a milestone (depending on the size) I may send a hand-written note, an e-mail to their Manager or a small token of my appreciation coinciding with a note of appreciation such as lifesavers (You’re a lifesaver!) or 100 Grand candy bars (Thanks a million!). I try to keep in mind that “I get by with a little help from my friends!” I know that the training products that I create would suffer if it were not for the expertise provided by my SME’s.

October 15th, 2008

Great post on SME, Tom. I like to have the SMEs provide information in any usable format, whatever is easier for them. I also prototype the course so they can see the various interaction types – seeing is worth way more than describing!

October 15th, 2008

Great article!

I´ve learned in my projects that SMEs have without doubt the biggest impact on the success and the quality of a good E-Learning Content. The best SMEs have good didactic skills without didactic education – you can see it just when you have a close look at their Powerpoint Presentations they created before they knew you.
In my opinion you can “win” your SME in different ways:
– teach her/him some things to get better personally (Presentation skills, picture language,…) so they will have better success within their organisation
– make sure that your SME´s linemanager/boss knows everything about the important role of your SME in the project
– tell your SME how you appreciate his work although he doesn´t know anything about instructional design
– transform the passion of your SME about “his” subject into passion for teaching about his subject
– make sure that your goals are the same.

If you act like a catalysator and help your SME to develop some E-Learning skills and – for sure – have some fun – there is a good chance to get the best out of him.

Great Post ! Your ideas about how to manage the relationship with SME’s seems to be very logical. In reality, it’s far to be an evidence. I began to work on an eLearning project for an Industry last Year and I learned a lot from my mistakes. So, I was “one of those college educated people”. Then, I find this post is very valuable. I think that one of the biggest key sucess is probably that we have to focus on what our client expect rather that on what we are able to do. This can be sometime frustrating, but we have to deal with.

Thanks again,


Your advice is very timely for me. I’m working on a Construction Inspector training program with a waste water treatment client and will be relying very heavily on SMEs. However, I am located in Cincinnati, OH and the client is in Hartford, CT. Anyone have any tips for working with SMEs at a different geographic location?

Great post Tom. I would like to add that while working with SMEs we, IDs, should go in with an open mind. That is to say, do not let one difficult experience with some SME ruin your attitude towards all SMEs.

If we (the team as whole) respect them for their time (out of their own life/tasks) in helping us, avoid making requests in rude language/tone, avoid pressurizing at the wrong moment life could become easy for all involved.

We, IDs, can take a lead in developing a decent relationship with SMEs without depending on the project leads/managers, SME managers, etc. Use their help as a last resort. However, let them know what efforts you are taking and your success/failure. Your failure should not be a rude shock to them but make an effort on your own first.

I believe mutual respect and a little appreciation at appropriate time – call it instant recognition (a simple, ‘thanks for helping me today’ or ‘our session really helped me understand the topic better. Thanks for your patience’) will help us build a fairly good ID-SME relationship. (I use this formula for everyone I work with and it has helped more often than not).

If you happen to be a SME, please do not let one bad experience with an ID/project manager ruin your relationship with the others. We, IDs, are only trying to help you spread your knowledge far and wide [with the help of fellow team members of course).

Let’s keep the TEAM spirit alive!


Excellent topic and thank everyone for sharing their process in working better with SMEs.


Tools and technology have become very important in the operational aspect of developing elearning. They are predictable. The difficult aspect is working with people, who are not so predictable. The intent to extract the concept needed from walking brain trusts(SMEs)and then transfer relevant design model and activities into tools. That is probably why your #1 item is addressed at length in this thread, while not as much discussion on item #2.

Hope this makes sense. Michele

October 16th, 2008


I’m such a great fan of your blogs. So much that i’m restless at the dawn of Tuesdays and i keep telling others that i await your posts!!!
As soon as i see your post, i’m extremely happy and i share the contents loudly with “all & sundry” hanging around my cabin. And i religiously follow your posts word-by-word…

Hi Tom,
Great post! You have highlighted easy tips to work with SMEs and each tip is ‘doable’! Your post has also generated some equally good suggestions and best practices from others!

Here is my two cents. I recommend a simple approach to ensure that subject matter experts and instructional designers work towards the same goal. The approach is Communicate>Innovate>Accommodate.

I believe that by using the above approach, we can make SMEs, the perfect partner in training!

Read my blog at:

Look forward to your comments/feedback.

October 16th, 2008

The grayness of my beard may be showing here, but I’ll chip in with a thought or two.

Consider whether elearning is a two-step process. Step one is instructional design. Here the objectives of the learning are defined, the outcomes decided, and the content gathered. And this is where working with SME’s is critical.

Step two is the production of the elearning course, where the content is engagingly wrapped for delivery. Now, would you normally consult with an SME on screen design elements and elearning interactivity strategies? Maybe, but more likely you’ll be dealing with management, sales, or marketing folks. — at any rate, the owner and decision-make of the project.

So here’s a question to think about: is Articulate Presenter an instructional design tool, or a production tool?

I think it’s pretty apparent that it’s a production tool — but I think I see a lot of melding between what folks refer to as instructional design and the production phase. Perhaps it’s all semantics; who knows?

So, just an opinion: consider whether it’s important to keep the two steps separate. Bob Mager once wrote, “There are many ways to package a bologna, but it’s the quality of the meat that counts.”

The quality of meat is the content; the packaging is the production.

Best regards,


October 16th, 2008


The problem you describe has been the bane of IT departments for years. The SME wants some database tool, but doesn’t know anything about IT’s capabilities and limitations. IT knows their stuff, but little of the subject matter. There is usually a gap in understanding that results in the SME not getting what they wanted, and both pointing fingers. Iedally, both sides would know something about the other’s to assure success. I did this years ago when I was an SME, knew something about Microsoft Access, and could have an intelligent discussion with IT about SQL queries. I supposed it helps that I am very much a do-it-yourselfer.

It’s now the same with eLearning. In my current capacity, I am again the SME. But as that do-it-yourselfer, I’ve started developing my own eLearing content. And since I am a newbie to eLearning, I come to this blog often for insights from you and your wonderful audience.

I particularly liked Julia’s comment about, as a content developer, recording the SME talking through their lecture slides. I would challenge a developer to actually sit in on one of their SME’s instructor led classes. If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad must go to the mountain. This is how to bridge that gap in understanding I mentioned above.

Great post on some commonly known, but often forgotten best practices! Read my thoughts at our Lessons on Learning blog:

As a programmer, I don’t always get to work directly with the SME, but I have seen many different SME/Instructional Designer relationships over the years. Sometimes, it seems that the course is really designed by the instructional designer who will go to the SME with questions. Other times, it seems that the course is really designed by the SME with some guidance from the instructional designer.

I think that the course design should really fall into the hands of the instructional designer. They are the ones who know the most about creating effective courses. If you let the SME create what they consider a useful PowerPoint presentation, you will find yourself facing an uphill battle to change things around or eliminate the content that doesn’t support the objectives.

But either way, I always appreciate it when they include me in the conversation so I can make sure that their ideas can be implemented from the technology side in the time available.

Love your art work. Any chance you’ll blog about it? I would like to know how you did the “name dropping” style, and others as well. I did see your earlier piece.

[…] What Everyone Should Know About Working with Subject Matter Experts […]

I couldn’t agree with you all more. Here’s my two cents:
Forget all about what you may know about ID, and keep your SMEs happy -if you want to keep your job that is-

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