jump to navigation

Learning Circuits Big Question: Working with Subject Matter Experts September 28, 2009

Posted by cjescribano in training industry.

This month Learning Circuits takes on the Big Question of working with Subject Matter Experts.


Subject Matter Experts are critical to a training program’s success because they supply the content—the key facts you want people to learn, and even more importantly the stories and examples that bring those facts to life. Without accurate and complete content, even the best design is just a lifeless skeleton.

As you work with SMEs, it helps to remember two truths about SMEs:

1) Most SMEs already have full-time jobs

2) Most SMEs LOVE their content and think everyone needs to know everything about it

Once you know those two truths about SMEs, you can devise some successful strategies for working with them.

Truth #1: Most SMEs already have full-time jobs

That is to say, for the most part, SMEs are very busy people who don’t have a lot of time to help you. Here’s what you can do to make sure you get the help you need.

  1. Appeal to their love of their subject matter (see Truth #2). Show that you’re interested in what they’re talking about. Do your own homework so you can ask intelligent questions (see #3 below).
  2. Ask for their time commitment upfront. Have the SMEs attend your kickoff meeting with other key stakeholders. Make sure that both they and their bosses understand their role, how critical they are to the success of the program, and the time commitment involved. Be as specific as possible about time commitments. Prepare a job aid that shows specific tasks and for each task:
    -An estimate of how long it will take to complete
    -When it’s due

    This type of schedule can help SMEs plan their time, and it also gives them some ammunition if they need to talk to their bosses about freeing up some  time.

  3. Do your homework. Learn as much as you can without the SMEs’ help so you don’t waste their time with elementary questions. Read available documents and talk to your primary client contact to get the basic information. Use the Internet. Even though you may be creating custom training on a specific company’s policies, knowing the industry standards in the same area can give you some important foundational knowledge. Create a list of questions as you learn, so you can ask your questions all at one time. Prepare a simple job aid or form that makes it easy for SMEs to give you just the information you need.
  4. Show SMEs that you respect their time. Find out how your SMEs like to work. Do they prefer morning or afternoon meetings? Are certain days of the week or times better than others? Are several short phone calls better than one long meeting, or vice versa? Once you know your SMEs’ preferences, schedule meetings and deliverables accordinlgy. Begin and end meetings on time. And always be prepared so that meetings go quickly and smoothly.
  5. Provide tools to make SMEs’ jobs easier. Send your questions ahead of time to help SMEs organize their thoughts. Provide tools, such as forms, that SMEs can quickly fill in.
  6. When all else fails, be prepared to make things up. Yes, I know that may sound heretical, but it works because SMEs can’t stand to see their content portrayed incorrectly. So, if you’re not getting the help you need, do the best you can with what you do know, and ask for feedback. Don’t worry that it may all be wrong. Once the SMEs see that, they’ll realize how much you need them, and they’ll jump in to make sure that the content is accurate

Illustrative SME Story:

In the mid-90s when the barriers between local and long distance telephone carriers were breaking down, a colleague and I designed training on how to sell local services for a long distance company. My colleague had worked in the telecom industry for a long time. She had been there when AT&T broke up and had witnessed several other big changes in the industry. So, when our SMEs failed to give us the content we needed, she applied strategy #6 above and made a well-educated guess at what the content should be. Imagine how surprised we were that that content was accepted almost completely, and we found ourselves in the unique position of going beyond developing training to developing strategy for a major initiative! I wish I could say that that was the only time that happened.

Truth #2: Most SMEs LOVE their content and think everyone needs to know everything about it.

SMEs will want you to include absolutely everything there is to know about their content area in the training—even if it’s only a one-hour WBT. They will want to answer the simplest of questions with a one-hour dissertation. Your challenge is to honor their passion without compromising the instructional effectiveness of your program. Here are some strategies to help with that.

  1. Keep the focus on learning objectives. Many SMEs don’t know about or care about learning objectives. But you have to. So, keep reminding them of the learning objectives and insist that their content directly tie to the objectives. Keep a “parking lot” for that other interesting content that they want to include. And promise them you’ll find some way to make that available to interested learners as a resource.
  2. Take the learners’ perspective. When SMEs tell you something, play it back for them from the learners’ perspective. Let them know when something is too dense or confusing. Ask them to simplify. Keep asking them: Why is this important to the learner?
  3. Help SMEs prioritize their content. Remind them that you only have “X amount of time” for this program, and so you need to focus it on the absolutely most important pieces of information. Keep asking: How important is this to the learners’ jobs?
  4. Provide a framework for collecting information. As mentioned in #5 above, tools can help make the job of providing information more manageable for SMEs. It can also help you to make sure you get just the information you need. Instead of asking wide open questions about what SMEs know, ask specific questions. Think through exactly what information you need and then give SMEs a job aid that they can quickly fill in to provide that information.

Illustrative SME Story:

I was delivering a Train-the-Trainer for a large consulting firm. There was a little extra time in the schedule for participants to think about what they had just learned and to plan how they would train it. However, one SME was impatient with what she saw as excessive downtime. So, when a half-hour window opened in the day, she asked to talk to the participants for a while. I advised against it, but was voted down. The SME took the stage and talked non-stop for an hour, and I watched from the sidelines as one-by-one each participant’s eyes glazed over, and they began taking virtual trips to the Bahamas. When the SME finished, I know she felt satisfied that she’d been able to share all that knowledge with the participants, but I wonder if she realized how little was actually received or retained.

One Final Thought on SMEs and Informal Training:

It seems as though social networking and other technologies provide an excellent means of connecting learners directly with SMEs for Q&A sessions, interviews, SME articles, and the like.



1. jefferygoldman - September 29, 2009

Wow, thank you for all the very practical advice.

Regarding #2-2 Take the learners’ perspective, “Ask them to simplify. Keep asking them: Why is this important to the learner?”

I usually find that they are so married to the intricacies of the subject matter that they often have great difficulty simplifying it. For me I will take all of the content, advice, etc. they have and then simplify it for them (asking them to proof and edit it later).

And similair to your “Why is this important to the learner?” question, I constantly ask “How is the learner going to use this info on the job?” This always reveals quite a bit and lends the SME to the learners’ perspective too.

Again, thank you for the great post.


2. cjescribano - September 29, 2009

Thanks, Jeff! And thank you for suggesting this topic for The Big Question. As you can tell, it’s one that I’m passionate about.

And good point about SMEs having a hard time simplifying. You’re right that it’s usually best to help them with that. Sometimes, though, it can become a tug-of-war with me simplifying and them adding complexity back in. Do you find that too?

3. jefferygoldman - September 30, 2009

It seems that SMEs I have worked with on prior projects give me much more liberty and let me simplify the content. I think much of this is due to the evaluation(s) they receive from the learners, even if anecdotal.

My newer SMEs do tend to add more complexity and are pushing to add and add and add. Right now, one of my projects will have a corporate lawyer as a SME, which may be quite an adventure. Another project he had worked on (with another e-Learning Designer) had more disclosures than content. I am expect a “tug of war” with that one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: