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Internal or External SME: Do You Know the Difference?


Wed Mar 04 2015

Internal or External SME: Do You Know the Difference?

The training budget is in place and the instructional design plan is set, including a timeline. Now, you must wait for content. Of course, you’re working with subject matter experts (SMEs), so content will start pouring in. Or will it? 

As learning professionals, we know that SMEs are critical to developing many learning programs. Keeping the design and development project on schedule and on budget, however, can be a challenge if we can’t obtain the necessary content. Although we understand that SMEs are experts in their field and have demanding expectations from everyone, it is our job to help SMEs understand that this learning program will require significant, highly focused commitment on their part. 


The Big Question 

One question hangs in the balance, though. Are you working with an internal SME or an external SME? Knowing the difference can determine the success of your instructional design timeline, which affects the overall training budget. 

Working with internal SMEs is advantageous and profitable in many ways. SMEs within your organization want to help develop training and view “volunteering their time” as a win-win for them and other employees within the organization. SMEs think, “I share my knowledge that helps other employees learn, which will benefit the organization as a whole.” In addition, employees that are asked to be a SME consider it an honor and think, “They know I am considered an expert on this topic.” 

Internal SMEs help learning professionals develop training programs because it is part of their job description—an unwritten rule. More importantly, this means no additional expense for your training budget. But keep in mind that SMEs have other priorities. With management aware that the SME is helping to develop a learning program, priorities may be adjusted or reassigned. 

Working with external SMEs also offers numerous benefits. Consider these SMEs as “boots on the ground.” They are in the field, but outside the organization. External SMEs have a different vantage point and experience that may not be easily seen from within the organization. 


Asking an individual, who does not receive a paycheck from the organization, requires a clear understanding of all expectations, however. Remember, this is not part of their job. A core challenge of working with an external SME is that they typically have a “day job” beyond their SME role. Although an internal SME’s priorities can be reassigned, the priorities of an external SME are for _their organization—_not yours, which may affect your instructional design timeline. 

External SMEs, as internal SMEs, consider it an honor to be asked. Yet their time (and the value of their time) may come at an additional cost, so you have to question whether this is part of your training budget?

The Bottom Line 

As you develop your instructional design plan, timeline, and budget, take into consideration whether you are working with SMEs. Are you working with internal SMEs—in the office or cubical next to you, on the payroll of your organization? Or are you working with external SMEs—volunteers for your organization or on someone else’s payroll? 

Both types of SMEs are invaluable, and both understand the value of helping create training. Your timeline and budget hinge on which type of SME you are working with on your project. As the learning professional and the lead project manager working with SMEs, you must establish clear role definition and clarification and communicate the timeline, as well as bring up any red flags before it is too late.


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