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3 Cs of the Designer-SME Relationship

For many instructional designers, collaboration with subject matter experts is a more productive alternative to competition. The “Three C” process is simple to understand: consult, collaborate, and continue. 


As professionals, you start out as consultants, not as collaborators. Collaboration requires a high level of trust on the part of the SME in the designer’s ability and character. Very few working relationships begin on the collaboration level, unless there is an existing positive reputation on either side. Otherwise, it is important to realize that collaboration—and its privileges—must be earned. 

Consulting involves using your skills to secure for the other party they results they desire. Solid consulting skills are the way to get to collaboration. The key to unlocking the door to collaboration is trust. Your job as a consultant is to initially win and keep the SME’s trust. The two keys to building trust are demonstrating substance and adapting to the client’s style, which are discussed later. 

Designers must approach every SME with a service-based, consulting attitude. Expecting collaboration off the bat is a setup for failure. The trust needed for collaboration is earned only through your professionalism, track record, competence, and humility. The good news is that your reputation may precede you with the next client, who enthusiastically looks forward to your services. That trust in your consulting abilities also opens up a possibility for collaboration. But in any case, the discipline required for consulting must come first. 

Consulting for Designers 

Unresolved conflicts with other stakeholders, the highly technical nature of the work of a SME, and the process of sound instructional design mask a simple reality: The designer-SME relationship is in essence no different than any other consulting relationship. 

A consultant is a professional who adapts to the preferences, styles, and habits of the SME, while holding to the essentials of his or her craft. Good designers can interact with a wide range of personalities and working cultures. They adapt to multiple situations and put SMEs at ease, while being able to raise the standard of the design decisions that are made. Having a basic awareness of organizational development principles will help them accomplish this end result. 

Designers first learn the basics through applied theory, and then through their experience through with project life cycles. They are then able to accommodate the SMEs’ styles and preferences in many ways. Preferred pace, communication, technology level, decision making, and a host of other variables will be different for every situation. If designers adapt quickly, they can build the needed buy-in and relational equity required for crucial design decisions. This will produce the results the SMEs want, even when the process and rationale, in their minds, seems counterproductive. 

Adapt Your Style 

Your success is more likely if you develop a solid working relationship with your client (in this case, your SME)—including confidence, buy-in, and persuasion. After acquiring your professional skill set, you need to adapt to your SME on a personal level, whenever possible. This involves mirroring your SME’s preferences in the same manner as a sales professional. Simply adapting your speech rate, patterns, and level of sophistication will make a difference in building rapport. Adapting to your SMEs in this way can serve their purposes better and make for an improved resolution to the project. 

The substance you offer is one element of the process. Style is entirely another. Consider these strategies for adapting to your SME’s style in the following areas: 

Communication Styles. There are as many ways to communicate as there are unique personalities. Communication styles change depending on desired frequency, tools, level of technology, figurative or literal interpretations, and so forth. Any challenges that you may have with your SME could indicate a communication preference that has gone undetected. By taking some time to discover the unique characteristics of your SME, you will often find solutions. 

Negotiation Styles. Some negotiation styles are healthier than others. The challenge is being aware of the proper paradigms for “winning” and “losing” and ensuring that you phrase everything as a “win/ win.” Look for your SMEs’ advantage in every situation. As SMEs trust that you are keeping their priorities in mind, you can propose elements that seem contrary to their preferences. Reminding them of the larger “win” can lead you to the best solution. Many people have been able to transition from a “win/lose,” competitive mentality into a collaborative situation. Finding the way to bridge this gap will ensure a much higher degree of success for you. 

Conflict Styles. Conflict styles are similar to negotiation styles. By recognizing and defusing the barrier of volatile emotions, you can accommodate “shared meaning” and mutual understanding. The obvious place to start may be the “loud conflict” types. Anger, resentment, accusation, and other expressions are often quick to surface and sometimes tough to defuse. On the other hand, conflict that is suppressed or not understood as such can be even harder to uproot and take care of. Adapting to conflict styles in a manner that is productive for both your SME and yourself is a challenging and necessary task.  


What sets collaboration apart from a normal working relationship is the sense of voluntary partnership, as well as synergy. The product of the partnership is greater than the sum of its parts. Because of mutual trust in each other’s ability and reliability, each partner approaches the relationship focused on the goal and open to possibilities that they might not normally consider. 


Many people doubt that the benefits of collaboration are actually possible. Collaboration represents a massive paradigm shift for the industry. Instead of being grouped together in a distant (at best) environment and tasked with output and deadlines, collaboration is a reality in which you can enjoy the process, the people, and perhaps even the content. Collaboration is possible, when you anticipate the best things rather than expect the worst or the normal. 

“PREFeR” Your SME 

Having brought both substance and style to the table, you need to continue consulting the SME in order to foster collaboration. To help lower any walls impeding collaboration, continue consulting with substance. Matching the SME’s style is the first step in that direction. The next step is to PREFeR your SME by creating a win/ win context for what could become a free-flowing collaboration. The parts that make up this step (process, reasons why, empowerment, friendliness, and recommendations) build on one another and will help you to center on your SME as you move beyond consulting into collaboration. 

Process. The first step to PREFeR your SME is to explain the process. Create the proper context for your activities, by simplifying the ADDIE model (analyze, design, develop, implement, and evaluate) and any ground rules for your partnership. Whatever design model you select, you must inform SMEs of the basics so that they know what to expect. Avoid a lengthy, technical discourse. Instead, simply use the “WIIFM” (What’s In It For Me?) method, explaining to your SMEs how this process will provide them with the most effective training possible. 

Reasons Why. After explaining the process, it is important to reinforce the process, as well as prepare for future SME questions, using reasons why. Always providing reasons why (concrete explanations from instructional theory, collective practice, and your own experience) will reduce uncertainty and increase your SMEs’ trust level as you lead them into new, possibly awkward territory (keeping WIIFM in mind). In addition, there may be times when the reasons why may simply not be clear to SMEs, and gaining their advance agreement to trust your judgment in those times can be very helpful. Anticipating their questions beforehand will ultimately give them reasons why your recommendations are worth heeding. 

Empowerment. Consider empowering your SME by explaining in appropriate detail the reasons why you are making your recommendations. Some SMEs who want to know more about the process of design may be surprised to learn how relatively simple it can be. If you are secure enough in your relationship and are convinced they will benefit over time, consider teaching them the basics of the instructional design process as you work together, especially if multiple projects are involved. The result of this partnership effectively changes the dynamic of the relationship closer to a mentoring or teaching role, which can empower SMEs with significant skills that can greatly increase their output and efficiency.  

Friendliness. It is important to keep communication flowing in a friendly manner. In particular, you should adopt an attitude of friendliness at the start of a new working relationship. Although some SMEs come with additional “baggage” (such as rumors of being difficult to work with), you can set a proactive tone by being optimistic, even when someone’s reputation, experience, or working habits may not be the best. Being acutely aware of this information beforehand allows you to prepare for any difficulties—and still start off on a friendly note.   

Recommendations. Finally, provide recommendations to others about your SMEs, highlighting their hard work. Recommendations go both ways. Although designers want a good word from the SMEs, consider sending kudos to your SMEs via LinkedIn or an in-house award system. This can set you apart within the organization as a conscientious, appreciative professional. Also, during your project, an encouraging word, empowering remark to a colleague, or quick note of appreciation will help you get closer to your mutual goal. 


It takes a lot of work to reach the collaboration stage—and it would be unfortunate to enjoy it only briefly. It is desirable to continue to collaborate as much as possible—for many reasons including morale, productivity, enjoyment, and return-on-investment. 

Typically, a first project takes a significant amount of empowerment time for the SME to grasp additional details of the ADDIE process. Again, taking a conservative, encouraging approach on a case-by-case basis will help you and the SME stay motivated. 

On the next project, your SME will come back to the table with actual design experience instead of just a vague intellectual idea of what the process should look like. Even if the type of design is completely different (for example, a circular design in which the user may pick their next topic, as opposed to a sequential process), it is likely that you will sense your SME making the connections more quickly. With every mental light bulb that flashes in your SME’s mind, you move beyond empowering a colleague to actually building champions for the design process. 

Steps to Continuing Collaboration 

The idea of ongoing collaboration is exciting for many designers and SMEs. If you are open to the possibility of continuing collaboration, keep these suggestions in mind: 

  • Ensure that your SMEs have a genuine interest in design, as well as available resources to invest in learning design for their own benefit.

  • Keep monitoring their interest level throughout, and if it wanes, encourage them. It would be better to pause the process indefinitely than to continue beyond the point of burnout or lost interest. Every “baby step” represents progress.

  • Remain low-key—even for the most eager SMEs—so that you know that the SME remains interested. By staying in the shallow end of the pool and taking your cue from the SME, you can eventually tread into deeper waters. Jumping into the deep end of the pool will almost certainly be counterproductive, no matter how eager your SME initially is.

  • Be selective. Avoid offering your expertise unless the SME is both sincere and qualified. Cultivate multiple collaborations so that you keep growing even if availability or interest levels change. Use common sense with your intuition. 

Note: This article is excerpted from Infoline “The Designer-SME Collaboration” (ASTD Press, 2010). Many learning professionals are looking for a way to partner with subject matter experts (SMEs) without having to compete against them. This issue will provide an awareness and strategy for the benefits and potential pitfalls involved in SME collaboration.

About the Author
Nathan Eckel is founder of Life Tree Group and former adjunct professor of instructional design and online collaboration at LaSalle University. His experiences in the healthcare, defense, pharmaceutical, and software industries have shaped his perspective on organizational effectiveness. Eckel has presented at ASTD’s Leadership Conference, Bloomsburg University’s Corporate Advisory Council, LaSalle University’s Lunchtime Learning series, and local special interest groups. He also is former president of the ASTD Greater Philadelphia Chapter. Eckel authored Open Source Instructional Design: Successfully Mentoring Subject Experts, which was published in 2009. He can be reached at nathaneckel@gmail .com.
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