Working with subject-matter expert in the instructional design process

Posted by Greten on 31 Dec 2022 under Tips

Working with subject-matter experts (SMEs) can be a valuable asset in the instructional design process. SMEs have a thorough grasp of the topic. They may give valuable insights and comments on conveying the material clearly and understandably.

Collaborating with SMEs can ensure content accuracy, identify potential gaps, tailor the content to the intended learners' needs, and provide real-world examples and case studies. But first, you must establish a solid and productive working relationship to get the most out of the collaboration.

Subject-matter expert (SME) defined

A subject-matter expert (SME) is an individual who has a deep understanding and knowledge of a particular subject area. They are often called "experts" and consulted for their expertise and insight on a specific topic. SMEs play a key role in many organizations, from providing technical guidance on projects to helping guide decision-making.

An instructional designer interviewing a tenured senior coworker in the board room.

The qualifications and experience of SMEs often vary, depending on the subject area they specialize in. Some SMEs may have an advanced degree or certification in their area of expertise. In contrast, others may come from experience and on-the-job training. Regardless of their background, SMEs must deeply understand their subject matter. In addition, their colleagues expect them to be able to provide accurate and reliable advice that will help the organization achieve its goals.

Benefits of working with SMEs

There are several benefits to getting an SME involved in the instructional design process.

  • SMEs have a deep understanding of the content being taught. This means they can provide valuable insights and recommendations on presenting the material concisely and understandably.
  • SMEs can help ensure the accuracy and quality of the content. By reviewing and providing feedback on the instructional materials, SMEs can help ensure that the content is accurate and up-to-date.
  • SMEs can help identify any potential gaps or weaknesses in the content. By working closely with you or your instructional design team, SMEs can point out areas where the content may be lacking, or additional information may be needed.
  • SMEs can help tailor the content to the needs of the intended audience. By understanding the audience and their needs, SMEs can ensure that the instructional materials are relevant and valuable for the learners.
  • SMEs can provide practical, real-world examples and case studies. By sharing their expertise and experiences, SMEs can bring the content to life and make it more engaging and relevant for learners.

Find the right SME for your learning program

SMEs are typically employed in an organization in another capacity, and their involvement in learning and development is usually a low priority among their several functions. For example, an instructional designer tasked to develop an elearning module on how to use a company-built software application needs to request one or some of the developers of that application to act as the SME.

Elearning developer consulting with SME about a product.

In another scenario, a team manager may approach the instructional design team to develop training for his new staff members. Suppose that manager is also the most senior team member in terms of tenure. The task they want their new employees to learn is something they did for a long time before getting promoted. In that case, the manager can be both the SME and the project owner of the training. However, if the manager is an external hire, they can send you one of their tenured employees to act as the SME. At the same time, they oversee the training development as the project owner.

Aside from looking within your own organization, you may identify the suitable SME for your instructional design project in several ways.

  • Identify the specific subject or topic that you need an expert in. This will help you narrow your search and focus on finding someone who deeply understands the subject matter.
  • Consider reaching out to professional organizations or industry associations. These organizations often have a membership base of experts in various fields. They can provide recommendations or connections to potential SMEs.
  • Utilize social media or online communities. There are many online communities and groups dedicated to specific subjects or industries. These communities can be an excellent resource for finding SMEs willing to share their expertise.
  • Consider partnering with a training or consulting firm. These firms often have a team of experts in a variety of subjects. They can provide the expertise you need for your instructional design project.

Work effectively with your SME

Depending on the role of the SME, they may be less involved or too involved in the instructional design process. A less involved SME can make the learning design easy or difficult. For example, you need to develop a learning program about the use of a software application or a machine. There is an already available book or manual, and all the SME does is provide you with a copy and vet for its accuracy. Then, you have all the information you need and more freedom to translate technical documentation into a training or learning program.

However, suppose the SME is less involved and lacks technical documentation. In that case, you might find yourself trying to chase them to extract as much information as needed for your learning program.

SME and members of instructional design team fist bumping above tablets, notebooks, and other tools on the table.

A very involved SME usually makes the instructional design process easy but can also be challenging. An SME who is also a manager and a project owner is generally very involved because the learners' performance will reflect on their team and on them as a manager. On the other hand, a well-involved SME may insist on a particular way of presenting the content, practically usurping the role of the instructional designer. It's good if they have experience in providing training rather than just knowledge of the subject.

However, some SMEs are knowledgeable of a topic but not necessarily how to impart it. There are also SMEs with experience in one learning modality but not the other. For an extreme example, an SME who conducts classroom training insists on a particular transition of each slide object in an elearning module. In situations like this, you must tread carefully and be diplomatic. Determine which hill you're willing to die for. So far, I've never heard of any instructional designer fired because the learners didn't learn enough. Usually, the instructional design team will simply get the results and the feedback from the current iteration of the learning program and use them to improve the next iteration. Aside from being diplomatic, you must document your conversation and agreement with the SME to cover your tracks.

You or your instructional design team should be able to work together with your SMEs productively. Here are some pointers on how to collaborate effectively.

  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities. During the instructional design process, it is critical to identify who will be responsible for which tasks. This can help ensure that everyone agrees and works toward the same goals.
  • Establish open lines of communication. Regular communication and feedback between SMEs and instructional designers can ensure that the content being developed is accurate and meets the needs of the intended learners.
  • Use collaboration tools. Collaboration tools such as project management software or online document editing platforms can facilitate communication and collaboration between SMEs and instructional designers.
  • Plan regular meetings. Scheduling regular appointments with the SMEs and the instructional design team can ensure that everyone is on track and that any issues or concerns are addressed promptly.
  • Foster a culture of teamwork and mutual respect. SMEs and instructional designers must work together and respect each other's roles and expertise. This can help create a positive and productive working environment.

Manage your relationship with your SME

Working with an SME can be a precious asset to any instructional design project. However, you must establish a solid and productive working relationship to get the most out of the collaboration.

  • Establishing clear expectations is key to managing any relationship. You must be clear about the scope of the project, the timeline, and the level of involvement you expect from the SME.
  • Building trust between the SME and the instructional designer is critical to successful collaboration. Take the time to get to know the SME and their expertise. Listen to their ideas and be receptive to their feedback.
  • Frequent communication is key to managing any relationship. Ensure to keep the SME updated on the project's progress and ask for their input and feedback when necessary.
  • Set boundaries in your working relationship. Establish expectations around the level of involvement of the SME and the type of feedback they can provide.
  • Show your appreciation for the SME's help and expertise. Express your gratitude and recognize their contributions to the project.


Subject-matter experts (SMEs) have a deep understanding and knowledge of a particular subject area and play a crucial role in the instructional design process. By collaborating with SMEs, you can ensure that the content presented is accurate, relevant, and engaging for the intended audience.

To find the right SME, you must research and find someone with the right expertise, experience, and availability to work on your project. In addition, to ensure effective collaboration, you should establish clear expectations, build trust, communicate often, set boundaries, and show appreciation. By following these guidelines, the workflow of the SME in the instructional design process can be more efficient and effective.


Last updated on 31 Dec 2022.

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