The Art of Working with Subject Matter Experts: Techniques and Best Practices


The success of a custom eLearning project is frequently attributed to good instructional design, programming, and graphic design. However, in our experience, a critical component in the success of an eLearning project is the availability and support of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) Our experience of developing over 50 eLearning projects, over the past three years, has shown that projects that have consistent SME support almost always meet milestones, scope, and budget. Over the years, we have developed a few best practices to manage SME expectations and keep them engaged through the eLearning project lifecycle.

1. Identify the right SME

It is not necessary that the most experienced person in a given domain is also most suited to be the SME on your project. This decision should often be made keeping in view current assignments, workload, etc. At the same time, the SME must have sufficient domain expertise to be able to share best practice, examples, case studies and provide content sign-off. Our experience: We often have had situations in which the SME needs further approval from secondary sources and agencies. In almost all such cases projects have been delayed, or the project scope has undergone a significant change after initial development. [feature style=”” icon=”icon-lightbulb” title=”Best Practice”] If additional SMEs or external agencies are expected to sign-off content, ensure you allocate time for this task in the project plan and do not proceed before receiving adequate sign-off. [/feature]

2. Invite them to the project kick-off discussion

It’s best practice to involve the SMEs in the kick-off meeting. Inviting them to the kick-off meeting makes them feel an important part of the project and also is an opportunity to get them introduced to all members of the team.

3. Don’t assume that they understand 

Most SMEs have little or no background in eLearning development. We have found it beneficial to explain the whole eLearning development process to the SME at the beginning of the project. Not only does this ensure that they understand the process, but, also are aware of their role in the success of the project. [feature style=”” icon=”icon-lightbulb” title=”Best Practice”]

  • Avoid using jargon during such interactions. Keep away from terms like SCORM, ADDIE, Agile, etc.
  • Show samples of documents that will be produced during the development process. Storyboards, PowerPoints, demo eLearning courses, etc. Doing so, fills the gaps in the SMEs mind and also helps them visualize the end product that you are building together.


4. Ensure that they understand the amount of time they need to commit

We have found this to be a very crucial aspect of working successfully with SMEs. Most often SMEs are asked to work on eLearning projects by their Managers without an understanding that it will require significant time on their part. If the SME is working on several high priority projects at the same time, this may affect scheduling and the project plan. [feature style=”” icon=”icon-lightbulb” title=”Best Practice”] We usually define the number of hours that the SME needs to provide at each stage of the project and the number of review cycles. Knowing the time commitment required helps SMEs go back to their Managers and prioritize their work schedule accordingly. [/feature]

5. Keep them organized

Our experience has also shown that most SMEs are extremely busy professionals and juggle multiple priorities within the organization. Therefore, it helps to keep the whole process simple and organized as much as possible. [feature style=”” icon=”icon-lightbulb” title=”Best Practice”] We keep the following things in mind:

  1. Learn about their constraints, schedule, and vacation dates and build that into the plan. If vacation dates fall within planned review phases, alert the project team about the possible impact it may have on the project plan.
  2. Block their calendar in advance and send meeting reminders and alerts frequently.
  3. Remind them of milestones and deliveries every week.
  4. Do not send them detailed project plan and updates, but, send them simple alerts and To-do lists.
  5. Stick to a single format and keep documentation simple and straightforward. eLearning projects tend to create multiple documents. It is best to decide on one format at the beginning of the project and then stick with it. We use Microsoft Word to create storyboards and content outline. SMEs prefer this format as keeping track of changes in easier in Word than in PowerPoint.


6. Be prepared for meetings and ask relevant questions

There is nothing that SMEs dislike more than to arrive for meetings and find that the instructional designers are unprepared. For the best use of time, we advise our instructional designers to go prepared for SME discussions. This includes reading all the material and content beforehand and keeping any questions or notes ready. Most SMEs appreciate that you have read the content and can ask intelligent questions. This helps build rapport and develop mutual trust. We often use mind maps and other visual tools to collaborate on content outline and storyboards. However, the mantra is always to keep it simple.

7. Stick to content reviews 

We usually avoid discussing user interface design and usability components with SMEs at length. Focusing SMEs on content reduces the time they need to spend in reviews and also ensure that visual design decisions are made by eLearning specialists or by the branding and communications team.

8. Give credits

Finally, this is an essential element that eLearning projects often miss. We firmly believe that all eLearning courses should have a credit screen with the names of the SMEs, who have worked on the project. Providing credit to SMEs is a way of saying Thank You for the hard work they put in making a successful eLearning project. It also creates an environment of sharing and collaboration within the organization for future eLearning projects. Those are a few simple tips and techniques to manage your Subject Matter Experts better. However, each SME is different and so is each project. The methods listed here cannot guarantee success, but, our experience has shown that they can improve your relationship with your SMEs and make the eLearning development process smoother. Additional Links: