One of the major misconceptions about instructional design is that designers need to know a lot about their course content to create a great product. That just isn’t true. Instructional designers are adult learning experts, learner advocates, and system thinkers. They rely on subject matter experts to provide the specific nuggets of content that they can use to create a meaningful learning experience. 

Unfortunately, the process of working with SMEs can be frustrating and time consuming. Here are some tips for saving yourself time, and lowering your blood pressure: 

Be aware of territory lines. Many working relationships get off on the wrong foot and create disagreeable circumstances for completing a project. Understand that SMEs, by definition, are experts in something and give them the respect they deserve. They are your partners, not underlings who live to provide you with content. 

Run, drive, and row in the same direction. Establish the project goals up front. Explain to your SMEs that you are all trying to achieve the same results. You may want to show them your evaluation plan to show the impact that you, as a team, are trying to make. 

Don’t look like a tourist. Credibility is important. Describe what you do (as an ISD or HR professional) and why you have the expertise needed to work on this project. Explain your role (again as a project manager, designer, and so forth—not a content expert). However, you will want to be very careful about this conversation so it does not look like boasting. 

Learn the language. Listen carefully to the vocabulary and jargon used by your SMEs and try to speak the same language. This clears up miscommunication, shows that you are listening and learning, and helps puts your SMEs at ease. 

Carry a map. Set the expectation of the SMEs up front. What kind of information will you expect from them? In what format will you want it? How much time and effort should they expect to spend on this project? Why should they? 


Thank you in any language. When an SME contributes content, attends your meetings, and so forth, make sure you thank them honestly. Remember: The world of training would suffer greatly without our SMEs. 

Note: This article is excerpted from Real World Training Design by Jenn Labin.


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